College and Career Readiness: The Skills and Standards You Need to Know About

College and Career ReadinessDo you have what it takes to succeed as a student or job seeker in the next stage of your life? That's what college and career readiness (CCR) is all about. It's having the necessary skills and background knowledge to start thriving in post-secondary education or within an occupation that provides mobility, a good wage, and advancement potential. Put another way, it's a basic state of preparedness that is considered essential for taking advantage of college, university, or vocational school opportunities and establishing a 21st-century career (not just a job).

That's why the whole concept is heavily utilized, especially at the K-12 levels. In education, CCRS stands for "college- and career-readiness standards," which are benchmarks that are used to help guide teachers on what students should be learning at each grade level. In America, the most widely used guidelines are the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English and mathematics.

In this article, you'll learn more about the Common Core standards, including why they are used and why they've been controversial. But you'll also gain a broader understanding of what it means to be college- and career-ready. And you'll discover how to properly prepare for the opportunities that await you.

What Does College and Career Readiness Mean?

Smiling student outside holding a laptopMost of us want to succeed. We want to know that we're capable of achieving our ambitions and building better lives for ourselves and our families. But that takes preparation. It requires getting ready to walk through new doors.

So, what does it mean to be college- and career-ready? Fundamentally, college and career readiness means that you're prepared for life after high school. It entails having the right variety of basic knowledge and skills that enable you to transition smoothly to post-secondary coursework as a student and/or pursue good career opportunities as a member of the workforce.

In fact, the typical college and career readiness definition includes the concept of being prepared for both outcomes. It's the idea that you should be able to start taking credit-bearing, college-level coursework—or taking advantage of vocational training—without requiring any remedial classes. But it's also the idea that you're prepared to gain entry-level positions in fields that provide upward mobility and family-supporting wages (or to begin the training you need to get those jobs).

College- and career-readiness skills are more varied than many people realize. They include abilities that colleges and employers expect you to have, such as:

  • Reading comprehension—A big part of English literacy is being able to read, understand, interpret, and evaluate a wide variety of simple and complex texts, from literary fiction to non-fiction works.
  • Writing and research—Literacy also requires the ability to clearly express and articulate ideas, information, and narratives in written form. This requires having a wide vocabulary and a practical understanding of grammatical structure. It also requires the ability to research information and use what you find in a way that helps you generate and support sound arguments or explanations. In fact, nearly half of America's college instructors believe that coming up with well-founded ideas is the most important aspect of writing.1
  • Public speaking (and listening)—Effective verbal communication is essential, whether you're interacting with a single individual or a larger audience. Success in college—and in a career—often requires the ability to express ideas and feelings in ways that particular persons or audiences can understand and relate to. But the ability to listen attentively to what other people say (and evaluate what they're saying) is equally important.
  • Mathematical reasoning and problem solving—Basic mathematical literacy is often a major requirement for success as a student or professional beyond high school. In addition to being able to perform simple arithmetic, you may need to understand statistics and know how to solve problems using concepts related to algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.
  • Critical thinking—This is all about gathering and using facts, evidence, viewpoints, and sound reasoning to evaluate an issue and arrive at a conclusion. It's an ability that is essential for overcoming challenges, making smart decisions, creating inventive solutions, and much more.
  • Collaboration—Being able to work with a variety of other people—regardless of their opinions, backgrounds, or personalities—is vital for succeeding after high school. But teamwork isn't just about mutual respect, cooperation, and fair treatment of others; it's also about handling conflict and knowing how to find common ground or win-win solutions when disagreements arise.
  • Persistence and self-management—Successful adults know how to take care of themselves. They embrace their responsibilities, manage their time well, and stay disciplined when it comes to getting adequate sleep, exercise, and nutrition. And they don't automatically give up when they fail. They recognize that adversity is inevitable, so they persist in the face of challenges and find smart ways to reduce their stress without harming themselves or others.

Why Is College and Career Readiness Important?

Alt TextThink of it this way: You can't build additional knowledge or stronger opportunities on top of a weak or crumbling foundation. That's particularly true when it comes to preparedness for college. Career readiness is the same. For most goals in life, you need a solid base of expertise before you can advance to a higher level.

Unfortunately, millions of high school graduates (and dropouts) fail to reach the minimum level of preparedness that is required for higher education or career development. In fact, it's been estimated that about one-third—or as many as 40 to 60 percent—of U.S. students need to take remedial classes when they enter college.2, 3 They simply don't have enough of the foundational expertise—usually in English and/or math—to start taking advantage of credit-bearing courses at the post-secondary level. Plus, they tend to complete college at lower rates than students who don't need remedial classes. (Fewer than 10 percent of them complete their college education on time. And many of them never make it beyond remediation.)3

The result is that America doesn't have enough skilled workers to keep pace with the needs and expectations of today's growing and rapidly changing industries. And as the world becomes even more complex and interconnected, those needs are amplified. It's a huge problem.

That's why college- and career-readiness benchmarks have been developed. According to those who support their use, CCR standards are a critical part of the solution to America's shortage of highly skilled workers. They believe that setting clear expectations for students and educators will translate into more people entering college or the workforce with the minimum expertise required for success.

Other parts of the solution include community colleges, adult education, and career and technical education. Those are all things that the U.S. Department of Education helps support through its subdivision known as OCTAE, which stands for the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

What Is Common Core?

Student outside working on a laptopThe Common Core State Standards are shared benchmarks that have been voluntarily adopted by more than 40 states for public K-12 education. So Common Core is not federally mandated. And there is no such thing as a federal Common Core curriculum. In fact, Common Core isn't a curriculum at all. Rather, it is a set of learning goals in English and math—also called anchor standards—that act as guidelines for what students need to understand and be able to do at each grade level. The how (i.e., the planning of curricula and specific lessons) is left up to local school districts and teachers.

The development of Common Core started in 2009, but the final college- and career-readiness anchor standards weren't published until June 2010.4 They are the result of extensive collaboration by governors and education officials from 48 states, as well as private organizations like ACT (makers of the college entrance test by the same name), and the College Board (creators of the SAT, another college entrance exam).

Common Core's development was also heavily supported and encouraged by other organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In addition, multiple teachers' organizations were involved in providing feedback during the drafting phase, including America's two largest teacher unions.

The purpose of Common Core standards is to help ensure that more Americans graduate from high school with the necessary knowledge and abilities to pursue college education or succeed in the workforce. It's about providing clear expectations based on what today's college educators and employers are demanding of students and employees. That's why, through Common Core, the college- and career-readiness standards are intended to spur improvement in the performance of the nation's public K-12 students and graduates.

That improvement is measured and tracked through annual student assessments. Many Common Core states share the same tests. These tests help teachers and schools find out whether their students are meeting each anchor standard, which is the expertise that students should have at the end of a particular grade level.

Some states chose, from the outset, not to adopt Common Core's college- and career-readiness standards. Texas was one of them. Like Nebraska, Virginia, and Alaska, the State of Texas chose to go with its own standards, which share a lot of similarities to Common Core. In Minnesota, only Common Core's English standards were adopted. Other states adopted the Common Core standards initially but later repealed them (or simply altered them a little and rebranded them due to controversy).

Colleges don't use Common Core. However, Common Core anchor standards are aligned with the assessments that many colleges and universities use for placing students or evaluating applicants' readiness for higher education.

English Standards

Common Core's English language standards describe essential skills for literacy, including those related to reading, writing, speaking, and listening. As they advance to higher grade levels, K-12 students are expected to meet more and more sophisticated sets of anchor standards. Their reading materials move from a relative balance of fiction and non-fiction at lower grade levels to a larger focus on informational texts in high school. Class discussions are also encouraged. And students are expected to learn how to evaluate what they read and integrate their newfound knowledge into their own writings and presentations.

At each grade level, the Common Core English standards are generally broken down into a few main categories (called "strands"), including reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language. Within those strands, the standards are further subdivided. For example, a reading strand may be subdivided into categories like (1) key ideas and details, (2) craft and structure, and (3) integration of knowledge and ideas.

  • Key ideas and details are anchor standards related to skills like:

    • Carefully reading text and inferring its explicit and logical meaning
    • Supporting your conclusions with specific evidence from the texts you've read
    • Deriving and analyzing the core themes of a written work
    • Summarizing a text's most important concepts and details
    • Evaluating the evolution of a text's ideas, scenes, characters, or central points
  • Craft and structure means a set of benchmarks related to abilities such as:

    • Understanding the contextual meanings of words and phrases
    • Examining how tone and meaning are shaped by particular word choices
    • Analyzing the structure of written material and how specific parts affect the whole
    • Evaluating how style and content is influenced by one's objectives or points of view
  • Integration of knowledge and ideas means standards associated with skills like:

    • Using and evaluating content that is in a variety of different formats, not just words
    • Describing and assessing the relevance and validity of, or the evidence for, someone's claims or arguments
    • Comparing and evaluating how different writers or speakers approach similar subjects or themes

Vocabulary acquisition and use is another example of an important category of standards. It falls under the language strand, even though some of the standards seem to overlap those in other strands. Vocabulary standards are associated with abilities such as:

  • Learning the meaning of unfamiliar words (both written and spoken) within their context
  • Acquiring and mastering the precise and nuanced use of a huge variety of words, including terms that are necessary for comprehending very specific subjects
  • Understanding how meaning is affected by nonliteral phrasing and the special relationships between certain words

Math Standards

When it comes to Common Core's college- and career-readiness standards, math is considered just as important as English. Like the language standards, these benchmarks are separated into different categories, and they get more challenging as students advance to higher grade levels. By the time they reach high school graduation, students are expected to meet six main sets of standards:

  • Number and quantity—Working with rational and irrational numbers, solving problems with various units, and using complex numbers, vectors, and matrices
  • Algebra—Reasoning and solving problems with algebraic expressions and equations, using polynomials, and rewriting rational functions
  • Functions—Interpreting and building functions, solving problems with linear, quadratic, and exponential models, and using trigonometric functions
  • Geometry—Understanding congruence, symmetry, similarity, and dimension, proving and applying geometric theorems (including for circles, right triangles, and other shapes), describing geometric properties with algebraic equations, and solving problems by using formulas for geometric measurement
  • Statistics and probability—Interpreting data, making and justifying conclusions based on statistical evidence, and using the rules of probability to make decisions and assess potential outcomes
  • Modeling—Analyzing real-world problems by using the most relevant statistics or mathematics for each situation

Why Is Common Core Controversial?

Even before the Common Core State Standards started being implemented, a lot of critics vocalized their concerns. Many still do. In fact, Common Core has become one of the most divisive issues in education.

The opposition to Common Core is driven by five main issues:

Because of the backlash, a few states that initially adopted the standards later repealed them. For instance, Oklahoma, Indiana, and South Carolina have dropped out of Common Core. In February 2019, Florida's governor signed an executive order to do the same thing. And other states, like Arizona, have revised the standards and given them a new name in response to critics.

But Common Core is still used in most states, despite ongoing controversies.

How the Standards Were Developed

College student reading a bookCommon Core is the result of many discussions between private non-profit organizations, state governors, and state departments of education. The standards are based on academic research, large surveys of employers and college instructors, and data on student performance. However, many K-12 teachers feel that their voices were left out of the process—despite the input of two large teacher unions. They believe they weren't given enough of an opportunity to provide ideas or express their concerns from the start.

That's just one reason why a lot of teachers don't like Common Core. Although many teachers do support the standards, many others continue to feel that their classroom experiences and expertise have been trivialized or ignored. They feel no ownership of Common Core since they were barely consulted, if at all. Yet, they are still expected to teach to the standards.

The Federal Government's Role

Common Core is not explicitly enshrined in federal law, but the federal government definitely made it hard for states to resist its adoption. That's because the Obama administration offered states the chance to compete for a share of billions of dollars in federal grants as part of the Race to the Top program. But in order to compete, states had to earn points. And they could earn those points by adopting new educational standards—by a specific deadline—that would (1) make K-12 students college- and career-ready and (2) be in common with most other states. At the time, Common Core was generally considered the only credible option that met the criteria.

In addition, the federal government awarded Race to the Top funds to two consortia of states for the development of student assessments aligned with the Common Core standards: Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Career (PARCC) and Smarter-Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

Plus, toward the end of the Obama administration, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law. Among other things, the law makes it a requirement that all K-12 schools receiving Title I federal dollars teach to high academic standards for college and career readiness. Perhaps most significantly, the ESSA requires annual statewide student assessments (that must be approved by the federal government), as well as interventions for the worst-performing schools.

That's why a lot of people who value local and state control over public education have criticized Common Core and similar sets of standards. They feel that the federal government is overstepping its authority by creating hard-to-resist incentives and burdensome requirements so that states fall in line with a national, homogenized approach to education that weakens the power of local school districts.

The Content of the Standards

Many of Common Core's detractors believe that the skills-based standards are so vague that some specific, essential knowledge may get overlooked. They also feel that the emphasis on skills places too much importance on abilities that are thought to lead to productivity and economic performance, at the expense of knowledge that enriches human lives and makes us better citizens. For example, they think that by focusing only on math and English, the standards minimize the critical need for knowledge from other subjects like art, science, and social studies.

In fact, critics of Common Core's reading standards frequently point out that reading comprehension generally requires background knowledge in a wide variety of subjects. That's why, in one oft-cited study, so-called "poor readers" with a lot of knowledge about baseball had better comprehension of written material on the subject than so-called "good readers" who didn't know much about it.5 Simply put, students need to be educated on a broad range of topics, not just taught "direct strategies" for comprehension.

Other criticisms include the fact that, in high school, Common Core places greater importance on informational texts than on literary fiction. Yet, literature offers better opportunities to capture the imaginations of students, making it easier to keep students engaged, teach them how to write, and help them understand history, social issues, and an endless variety of other relevant subjects.

In addition, some college instructors have said that what Common Core emphasizes doesn't always line up with what is most important for becoming college-ready.1

Implementation Difficulties

America's teachers have varied opinions about Common Core, but most teachers would probably agree that implementing the standards has not been easy. For one thing, learning materials that align with the standards have, in many cases, been difficult to find. For another thing, a lot of teachers have had a hard time adapting their teaching methods to meet Common Core's expectations and student-performance requirements.

The result is that many great teachers are leaving the field and pursuing alternative career options, which has led to teacher shortages. In addition, a lot of states and school districts have struggled to cover the costs of implementing Common Core standards because they've had to provide extra training to teachers and purchase expensive technology, new textbooks, and other items. It's difficult to know exactly how much Common Core costs, but most estimates peg the collective cost to states at many billions of dollars.

High-Stakes Testing

America's public schools are under a lot of pressure to "perform" (i.e., prepare students to pass statewide student assessments that are supposed to measure what they've learned and whether they are on track to being college- and career-ready). But according to a lot of Common Core's critics (including many parents), that's the problem: The culture of high-stakes testing places too much value on test scores, at the expense of real student learning and well-being.

After all, students don't become smarter just because you give them more tests. And complex learning is notoriously hard to evaluate. Critics often point out that many standardized tests are based on faulty interpretations of the Common Core standards, so the results may not accurately reflect what we think they do. Besides, a student may hit the "right" target, but that doesn't mean he or she is prepared to take on other, perhaps more worthy, challenges. When you choose to measure something, you can be blinded to other things of value that can't be measured.

That's why the paradigm of constant standardized testing has led many poorly funded school districts to eliminate or reduce the number of classes in non-tested subjects like art, music, science, and social studies. Faced with the need to make students perform on tests that measure skills in math and English, they choose to dedicate more of their limited funds toward that purpose. So students—especially those in poor school districts—miss out on the enriching benefits that come with a getting broader education.

Plus, on standardized tests that are aligned with Common Core, the passing scores and performance levels tend to be arbitrarily set. They are subjective. Plenty of students "pass" such tests even though they may not actually be on track for real college or career readiness. But since states are under pressure to produce more high school graduates who are ready for college and work life, government officials and education administrators have a natural incentive to "lower the bar" in order to show good performance metrics.

In fact, even though many states are showing improved performance on tests aligned with the "higher" standards of Common Core, results from another type of test are showing something different. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been used for decades to track what America's students know. It's a low-stakes test, meaning that nobody faces consequences if students perform "poorly." Since Common Core was enacted, Grade 12 scores in math and reading have remained flat or shown only minor improvement.

For example, in 2005, only 22 percent of high school seniors scored "at or above proficient" in math on the NAEP. By 2015, that number had only grown to 23 percent. The results have been similar for reading, going from just 34 percent in 2005 to 36 percent by 2015.6

Remember: Many states started implementing Common Core in 2010. So Common Core and similar standards may not be fulfilling the promises of their supporters. But it will probably take more time to know that for sure.

How Do I Become College- and Career-Ready?

Woman in a park working on a laptopUnder Common Core, the definition of college readiness is that you have the ability to take entry-level courses at a post-secondary school without requiring remedial classes in math or English. So in high school, college readiness is often deemed to be the result of learning a wide range of skills related to those two subject areas. However, in order to start reaping the full value of education at the next level, it's helpful to think more broadly. Doing so will give you a stronger foundation on which to build a successful future in a career that makes you happy.

That's why many school and career counselors suggest finding ways to learn and practice a larger variety of skills, in addition to those related to reading, writing, research, public speaking, and mathematical reasoning and problem solving. As listed earlier in this article, college- and career-readiness skills are also associated with abilities like collaboration, critical thinking, persistence, and self-management. So in order to keep all doors open after high school, consider doing more than the minimum required of you.

For example, explore college- and career-readiness activities such as:

Requesting Extra College-Readiness Assignments

Did you know that many high school teachers are happy to help ambitious students who want to do more than what's required of them? By showing that you want to take charge of your own education, you can gain extra support and mentorship, as well as additional opportunities to develop the skills you need.

One way to get those opportunities is to ask for extra assignments that are specifically designed to develop your college-ready skills. For example, check out the College Readiness Assignments for Texas, which can be used by you and your teachers for exactly this purpose—even if you don't live in Texas. In addition to math and English, you can choose from a wide variety of downloadable, stand-alone lessons in subjects like science and social studies. And you don't necessarily need a teacher to assign them to you. Some students do the assignments by themselves or enlist the help of a tutor or family member.

Getting a Tutor as Part of Your Test Preparation

Many tutoring services are available for students who want or need extra help preparing for state-required standardized tests or college-entrance exams. Of course, some services cost more than others, and not everyone can afford to hire a tutor. But it's possible to find free tutoring online, and some school districts and non-profit organizations offer free services for low-income families. So it's worth investigating what may be offered where you live.

But it's also important to know which tests you need to prepare for. After all, state testing requirements vary significantly. And depending on which colleges, universities, or vocational schools you apply to, you may or may not need to take the ACT or SAT. Look at these facts:7

  • About one-third of states use the PARCC or Smart-Balanced tests, which are aligned to Common Core. More than 30 states use different standardized tests that they've purchased or designed themselves, which are frequently aligned to Common Core. And three states use hybrid tests, which combine PARCC or Smart-Balanced questions with state-designed questions.
  • In 13 states, students must pass exit exams in order to receive their high school diplomas. However, some of those states allow students to fulfill that requirement through the use of certain kinds of projects or portfolios.
  • In 24 states and the District of Columbia, high school students are required to take the ACT or SAT as part of their college-readiness activities.

Looking Into Free College- and Career-Readiness Programs

Many community and non-profit organizations offer free or low-cost programs for teens or adults who need help preparing for college or career opportunities. For example, in addition to adult education programs for older students, some schools and organizations provide chances for high school dropouts to learn the basic skills they need to pursue college or career training. And in some states, job-training programs are available for unemployed adults who need skills for today's growing industries due to being laid off in industries that are shrinking.

Choosing a Diverse Mix of Extracurricular Activities

There's only so much you can learn in the classroom. To prepare for the best opportunities beyond high school, you really need a variety of other experiences. For example, by joining clubs, participating in sports, becoming a volunteer, pursuing challenging hobbies, or getting paid work experience, you can develop beneficial skills like:

  • Adaptability
  • A strong work ethic
  • Conflict resolution
  • Creative problem solving
  • Leadership
  • Organizational abilities
  • Personal accountability
  • Professionalism
  • Respectful interaction with all kinds of people
  • The ability to learn from your mistakes
  • Time management

Learning More About How to Succeed

Have you ever read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey? If not, make it a priority. You'll learn several powerful practices that have helped countless people achieve and maintain success and well-being in all aspects of their lives.

But don't stop there. Make reading books and articles from high-quality publications a daily habit. The more you read, the more you'll learn about yourself and the world around you. Many biographies of successful people offer terrific nuggets of wisdom that you can apply to your own life. Even literary fiction can open up new avenues of inspiration, insight, and understanding.

Of course, anyone who pursues higher education should also read proven tips for college success and know what you should bring to college besides the stuff you can pack. And people who want to succeed in a new career need to learn how to identify their strengths, explore all kinds of job options, set realistic goals, create actionable plans, ace job interviews, and much more.

Ultimately, you're the one in charge. Don't wait for others to teach you how to succeed in college or thrive in your career. Seek that information on your own by reading widely, participating in varied experiences, and asking for help or mentoring from people who have already figured a lot of this stuff out.

Get Ready for Your Future

College and career readiness is essential for maximizing your ability to thrive. So take the lead in your preparation for the opportunities that await you. And don't forget to make a point of exploring all of your educational options. After all, the possibilities for college and career training are probably more diverse than you think. Check out some of the options near you by putting your zip code into the school finder below!

1 ACT, ACT National Curriculum Survey 2016, website last visited on April 18, 2019.

2 U.S. Department of Education, "College- and Career-Ready Standards," website last visited on April 18, 2019.

3 Center for American Progress, "Remedial Education: The Cost of Catching Up," website last visited on April 18, 2019.

4 Common Core State Standards Initiative, "Frequently Asked Questions," website last visited on April 18, 2019.

5 Journal of Educational Psychology, "Effect of Prior Knowledge on Good and Poor Readers' Memory of Text," website last visited on April 18, 2019.

6 The Nation's Report Card, NAEP Data Explorer, website last visited on April 18, 2019.

7 Education Week, "What Tests Does Each State Require?," website last visited on April 18, 2019.