Higher Education

Testing Could Guide Some Kids Away From College. That's a Good Thing


In a recent article, I suggested that we should stop feeding high school students the myth that college is right for everyone. Higher education has a role for many young people, but as an instructor in college classrooms for almost 25 years, I have met plenty of young people who weren’t well-suited to it.

For some, college represents great stress, failing grades, and an inability to succeed in the classroom despite extra help. This has nothing to do with being smart. It has everything to do with the lack of alternatives for young people who deserve a better definition of success post-high school.

Parents, leaders, educators, and employers should work to discover children’s strengths and provide options to develop them. Many readers agreed with my last article, but I received a lot of e-mails concerned that our lawmakers and educators might adopt as a solution Europe’s early “tracking” programs, which divert children (without choice) to college or a trade profession. One of the hallmarks of American culture is the idea that we are free to choose our own paths.

A test that improves lives

Let’s remove the hyperbole around tracking for a moment. What if children were given the opportunity to live and work according to their strengths? We don’t have to choose the German model, where students are shunted onto tracks even before high school, based on early testing. Other countries in Europe, including France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Sweden, engage in tracking but delay the start of testing to enable more equality in children’s development and education.

In the U.S., we have the opportunity to test in a way that gives our children a more satisfying path to success. As an executive coach, I have many tools at the ready to assess client strengths, aptitudes, and interests. Test results don’t lock anyone into a particular position or vocation. They enable a dialogue about fit, about living and working to one’s strengths, about strategies to improve one’s weaknesses in essential skills, and about adapting where necessary to achieve one’s goals.

Where are the tests beyond the ACT or SAT (requirements for getting into college in the U.S.) that provide information beyond proficiency at English and math? We should institute a test rich with details about a student’s interests, strengths, and options. Where are the materials to help high school counselors have meaningful conversations with students and their parents about jobs, not just college?  Where is the sustained national dialogue (that now occurs only in fits and starts) around providing opportunities for every child, each according to his or her strengths? While there are plenty of career aptitude tests in use, the dialogue needs to expand beyond job matching.

The blind march to college

According to the National High School Center, a government-funded website, more than 70 organizations are aimed at helping students become ready for college and careers, as mandated by the Common Core State Standards. This confusing array, along with befuddling government guidelines, frustrates educators and students trying to find their way. Creating grade-specific goals, without accompanying standards for implementation by schools, leaves a lot of leeway for interpretation. Disappointingly, many schools and organizations seem to have dropped the “career” part of the Common Core mandate in envisioning their directives. In many cases, the path to college is well defined. Alternatives to college are often derided as fallback positions and thus receive scant attention.

We can do better—better testing and counseling, clear articulation of options, more exposure to careers that don’t require degrees. This is not an expensive proposition, but it does require a change of mindset.

After pursuing 10 years of college, achieving one bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and a Ph.D., I know that college has an important role. But the college experience goes beyond degrees, and I benefited from that, too. Those were not 10 continuous years. My formal education came in three separate bursts, between and during which I worked, struggled, tested my strengths, and discovered skill sets I needed to advance my goals. I pursued academic credentials in tandem with work and other learning and development opportunities. I discovered my strengths, made decisions, and advanced toward long-held goals around learning, service, and economic independence.

This is not a prescription for everyone. Young people deserve the opportunity to improve their strengths, shift course, learn some more, and become the most they can be. It’s an iterative process toward a satisfying future. As Americans, can’t we find more than one way to get there?

Karen-cates-190
Cates teaches negotiations, human resource management and organization behavior for MBA programs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She also teaches executive education programs on issues of leadership development, communication, and employee relations. As an executive coach she serves as a mediator to resolve in-house conflicts, and advises organizations on leadership and their people management systems.

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