No one likes to hear bad news, especially when it comes to their own performance. Understandably, we as Idahoans are not particularly receptive to news about how poorly we are preparing our children for life after high school.
Recently the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation reported that 17.8 percent of Idaho’s students are college and career ready. Then a local television report put the number at 25.7 percent and asked, “Which information is accurate?” The simple answer is: both. The 17.8 percent estimate is the share of Idaho’s students scoring above 500 on each section of the SAT. Let’s call this Measure 1. The 25.7 percent estimate is the share of Idaho’s students scoring 1550 on all three sections. Let’s call this Measure 2.
The two measures are not identical. For example, a student who scores 600 on the reading section, 600 on the math section, and 400 on the writing section would not be considered college or career ready under Measure 1 (they did not achieve above 500 on the writing section) but would be under Measure 2 (their overall score was 1600, above 1550).
Consider the same percentages but in a different way. Measure 1 says the percentage of Idaho’s students not prepared for life after high school is 82.2 percent and Measure 2 says it is 74.3 percent. The same 7.9 percentage point difference seems less meaningful in this context because the base — the percentage not college or career ready — is so large. Regardless of the measure, the takeaway is the same: the large majority of Idaho’s students are not prepared for life after high school.
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A little perspective might help, too. States and other organizations working in the education field use a variety of tests to measure college and career readiness among high school students (e.g., ACT, SAT, state standardized assessments), and there is no single measure that allows direct comparisons across all states. Given the available data, for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, ECONorthwest studied college and career readiness across the United States, and we found that Idaho ranks at best average in the share of high school students who are college and career ready. That average is approximately 30 percent — certainly nothing to celebrate.
So why do different states use different measures? Because no silver bullet predicts whether an individual student will succeed. Some students who might not appear ready for college or career in high school will thrive because they are motivated to do so. Sadly, some will do the opposite. But the SAT, the ACT and other standardized tests do a fairly decent job at predicting success in college at an aggregate level.
Fortunately, very little is predetermined when it comes to performance on these tests. Our educational system can teach good study habits and encourage a growth mindset. We can motivate our children to learn. We can determine the quality of what we teach. We can explain why a good education is essential in today’s global economy. All of these factors are things we control. There is no reason why Idaho should do less well than any other state or why we can’t even be a national leader.
So let the economists fixate on specific percentages and measurement issues. They’ve told us what we need to know and there is nothing subtle about it. All reasonable measures of college readiness say that we, as Idahoans — educators, parents, and students — are coming up short when it comes to college and career readiness.
It’s time to step back, acknowledge this reality and think of ways to improve our situation.
Kevin E. Cahill, Ph.D., is a senior economist with ECONorthwest. Andrew Dyke, Ph.D., and John Tapogna also contributed to this piece. Dyke is also a senior economist with ECONorthwest. Tapogna is president of ECONorthwest. The authors assisted with the analysis presented in the Idaho Education Field Guide, Volume 2, produced by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation and Idaho Business for Education. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not of ECONorthwest.