Are your students ready to succeed in college and career?

The case for smart assessment of essential skills at the secondary level to ensure success.
Doris Zahner, PhD, is Chief Academic Officer, Council for Aid to Education.
Doris Zahner, PhD, is Chief Academic Officer, Council for Aid to Education.

Content knowledge is no longer enough to ensure collegiate and career success.

Students need the essential skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective written communication to achieve their full potential. In fact, according to a recent Association of American Colleges and Universities’ survey of 500 executives and hiring managers, more than half view critical thinking skills as very important for college graduates. Fewer than half, however, believe recent graduates possess the level of preparedness needed for workforce success.

Our research at CAE shows that approximately 60% of students entering college are not proficient in these essential skills, and as this competence is seldom explicitly taught as part of college curricula, most students have little structured opportunity to improve once they reach campus.

The solution lies with secondary education institutions prioritizing essential skill development.

By assessing these skills early in students’ academic journeys and providing targeted developmental support based on assessment results, educators can greatly improve college and career outcomes. Identifying and supporting students who may be at risk due to their inability to think critically, problem-solve and write effectively should be a defined area of focus.

Identify and support

Although the majority of states report their students’ college and career readiness (CCR) skills as defined by content areas on standardized tests, there is currently no consistent way of comparing student outcomes across states, leading to disparate scales of measurement. Short of administering an assessment themselves, it is difficult for colleges and employers to know exactly which skills applicants possess.

Secondary education institutions should employ an authentic, valid and reliable measure of college and career readiness skills. These instruments help identify students who need additional support and those who are already proficient but would like to become more skilled, further improving their opportunities for success. CAE reports both norm and criterion-referenced data for institutional and student results, ensuring our solutions meet the needs of both students and individuals. For example, our detailed reports can compare mastery level performance of entering and exiting students at both private and public institutions nationwide, or against our overall U.S. data set.

Authentically measure

To assess how students perform in situations requiring essential college and career skills, CAE’s performance-based assessments (Collegiate Learning Assessment [CLA+], College and Career Readiness Assessment [CCRA+] and Success Skills Assessment [SSA+]) situate students in real-world scenarios that require purposeful written responses. Students are asked to address important issues, propose solutions to problems and recommend courses of action to resolve conflicts. They are instructed to support their responses by utilizing information provided within the assessment, which may include reference materials such as technical reports, data tables, newspaper articles, office memoranda and emails. There is no single correct answer and scores reflect a range of plausible and effective strategies—a process that, by design, mimics real-world, complex decision environments.

CAE’s secondary education assessments focus on data literacy, critical reading and evaluation, and the ability to critique arguments by identifying logical flaws and questionable assumptions—skills that are increasingly relevant in a diverse world where the ability to clearly perceive, integrate and critique opposing viewpoints is essential. Students are challenged to:

  • Analyze and understand data
  • Evaluate the credibility of various documents
  • Identify questionable or critical assumptions
  • Construct an organized and logically cohesive argument by providing elaboration on facts or ideas

Assessments that allow educators to help students identify their strengths, as well as areas where they can improve, are vital. Even small developmental increases make a difference.

Paying careful attention to essential skills can boost outcomes for students, parents, institutions and employers. Identification and action today will go far in developing the adept critical thinkers, problem solvers and communicators who will be essential to a brighter future for us all.

Doris Zahner, PhD is the Chief Academic Officer at Council for Aid to Education, Inc. (CAE), a nonprofit developer of performance-based and custom assessments that authentically measure students’ essential college and career readiness skills. She oversees all research studies pertaining to CAE’s performance-based assessments and provides scientific oversight of scoring, equating, and reporting. Dr. Zahner holds a PhD in cognitive psychology and an MS in applied statistics from Teachers College, Columbia University. For more information, visit

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