When it comes to designing equitable college and career readiness policies, context matters. From decades of research on inequalities in schooling, we know that students’ educational trajectories are not solely a function of individual choices. They are shaped by the classroom, school, and neighborhood conditions in which students learn. Yet, today’s students learn within highly stratified educational systems, in which racial and economic segregation is on the rise and access to rigorous curricula, high-quality postsecondary pathways, and prosperous careers remains out of reach for many. This stratification of opportunity begins early and compounds as students progress through their educational journeys. The practice of tracking students into different classes and course sequences based on their perceived abilities, for instance, can influence their subsequent access to advanced coursework, their college-going behaviors, and the types of jobs available to them.
Our educational data systems should reflect these realities. When we disaggregate education and employment data and augment traditional accountability metrics like enrollment and completion with other information about learner contexts, we can start to unpack the root causes of inequities and identify interventions that mitigate the effects of educational stratification. For example, federal data sources like the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection show that high schools with large proportions of students of color and low-income students are less likely to offer advanced mathematics and science courses, such as calculus and physics, compared to schools that enroll low proportions of these students. It’s not that students in high-minority or high-poverty schools choose not to take such courses; rather, the choice has been foreclosed to them altogether.
Knowing this context helps illuminate the patterns found in student-level datasets, such as the nationally representative surveys managed by the National Center for Education Statistics. Many of these surveys, like the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009, track students across education segments and into the workforce, and are linked to detailed student transcript, demographic, and geographic data. This is one way we know, for instance, that taking advanced coursework in high school can translate into better postsecondary and career outcomes. To cite another example, much of the recent evidence emerging around the role of career and technical education programs in preparing students for both college and careers has been made possible thanks to federal investments in statewide longitudinal data systems that connect data from historically siloed state agencies.
States will be more successful at closing equity gaps and ensuring their workforce is prepared for jobs that fuel prosperity if they have a better understanding of the structural factors that shape what people study and how far they go in their education. This is why many statewide longitudinal data systems are now integrating additional data sources, such as information on justice involvement or access to public benefit programs like food assistance. But other types of data are also needed.
For example, states can measure system conditions that inform education choices and outcomes, including school safety, access to early college coursework, and the availability of courses aligned with in-demand career pathways. They can also augment milestone data by tracking whether students are participating in work-based learning, completing applications for federal financial aid, and their mental and emotional well-being.
Capturing and linking additional information may seem daunting, but some states are already documenting non-education factors that impact learning at scale. For example, California administers the Healthy Kids Survey in grades 5, 7, 9, and 11. The survey captures student perspectives on school climate and safety, student wellness, and youth resiliency. Results are made available on public dashboards, and technical assistance is available to support schools to reflect on findings to inform local interventions.
The Healthy Kids Survey is one example of how states can develop a more holistic picture of the contexts surrounding students’ educational trajectories, in service of designing equitable policies that expand, rather than foreclose, the opportunities available to them. If diverse interest holders such as policy makers, educators, employers, and workforce development organizations have a joint understanding of the contextual factors shaping students’ college and career readiness, they can work together to create pathways and supports that lead to living wage jobs.
Find out more by reading WestEd’s study that used longitudinal data to understand college and career readiness interventions, watching a presentation that places study results into the broader policy context, and exploring the California Health Kids Survey.