College and Career Readiness

Use of the term “college and career readiness” abounds in the dialogue around PreK-12 policy reform. The widespread use of the term can, at least in part, be attributed to the Obama Administration’s 2010 Race to the Top (RTT) grant competitions, as well as the U.S. Department of Education’s 2011 requirements for states that chose to apply for waivers to obtain flexibility from the requirements of No Child Left Behind—the previous reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

In order to obtain a waiver, states were required to set more than NCLB’s original mandate to set “challenging academic standards”—states were explicitly required to adopt “college- and career-ready” standards. States could demonstrate their standards would prepare students for both college and careers in two different ways: they could either adopt standards that were “common to a significant number of states,” or have their standards “approved and certified by a state network of Institutions of Higher Education.” RTT criteria included similar language around adopting college- and career-ready standards.

Each state sets their own definition of college and career readiness, and from there, what standards and assessments align to their definition of readiness.

State Definitions

There is little agreement regarding what exactly the term “college and career-readiness” means. Definitions have been set at the state level, and vary widely in their clarity.


In 2009, a group of concerned state leaders came together through their membership in the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to craft a new set of academic standards for kindergarten through twelfth grade.


With the most recent renewal of ESEA in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the requirement to test yearly in third through eighth grades and once more in high school will remain the same, though states will be given considerably more freedom to determine how much test scores will weigh in school accountability.


High School Graduation Requirements and Degree Pathways

Each state determines the number and distribution of credits required to complete a high school diploma. The bulk of these requirements are generally in English language arts and mathematics, though most states have adopted a wide range of other required coursework.

College Credit in High School

A significant body of research suggests that earning college credit in high school has far-reaching positive effects on student success in both high school and college.

Federal Programs

The federal government funds several grant programs aimed at assisting disadvantaged students attending middle school or high school, including the TRIO and GEAR UP programs.