What Does “Career and College Ready” Really Look Like?
The collective nervousness in the room is palpable. Collared shirts are being tucked in, skirts are smoothed, and cafeteria lunches are left untouched. As my students double-check their resumes, sign introductory cover letters, and check-out MapQuest for directions, a young man walks up and quietly asks with a slight quiver in his voice: “Ms. Kovacic. What if they don’t like me?” I reassure him that he will do just fine, as we practice one last look-them-directly-in-the-eyes-and-give-them-a-firm-handshake routine.
Over the past several weeks, in anticipation of this day, my class of high school seniors and I have been reading the book Internship for Success. We reviewed the importance of first impressions, discussed and role-played various scenarios that could happen in a work environment, and reviewed professional etiquette and behavior. However, in reality, my students have been preparing for this experience much longer than just these in-class sessions. As they begin a 12-week internship, it is now time for each of them to apply the content and skills learned in school to the real world. It will be a good gauge for how career and college ready they actually are.
The internships are as diverse as the students. One student will be working with a UCSD professor and his post-doctorate student studying cognitive flexibility and its development in childhood. Another is in a lab charting the behavior of rats and analyzing their neural systems. Two students are assigned to work with physical therapists in the university’s athletic department, learning how to treat sports injuries. Others will be working on campus in libraries, tutoring centers, and the music and art departments.
As coordinator of our school’s Senior Internship Program, it is my responsibility to match each student with an appropriate internship on the adjacent college campus. Because of our location and mission, we are fortunate to work closely with UCSD’s various academic departments and labs. For many of my students, all of whom live below the poverty line, it will be a new and challenging experience. Over the next 12 weeks, they will be required to write weekly reflections about their experiences, interview their supervisors to glean advice about college and a career, complete a paper analyzing their work and personal growth, and prepare a portfolio that will be part of a thirty-minute senior exhibition. This exhibition, a prerequisite to graduating, is presented by each student before a panel of teachers, administrators, and community members.
Throughout our greater unified school district, many other high schools also offer similar internship opportunities with area businesses, community service organizations, government offices, and colleges.
President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are pushing states, districts, and schools to ensure that students graduating from high school are “college and career” ready. While I commend the goal, the larger question is what does this really look like and, perhaps more importantly, how do we assess this preparedness. It certainly is not solely the multiple-choice standardized tests my students take at the end of each year. To me, what my students are able to articulate and demonstrate at the end of their internships is a far better assessment of the skill set necessary to survive at the next level – innovation, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, leadership, consensus building, and the ability to communicate effectively. While I strongly support the over-arching goal of making sure all our students have access to quality education that prepares them for college and careers, the assessments we use to gauge this readiness must be authentic, thoughtful, and reflect the full range of a student’s abilities. It is much more than the ability to fill in the right bubbles with a No. 2 pencil.