Assessing academic and career skills for CTE student success

High-quality career and technical education (CTE) programs develop students’ skills through a combination of academic and technical knowledge with hands-on experience. CTE helps students gain the employability skills, knowledge and training they need to succeed in the workforce. However, as the employment landscape evolves, the skills CTE students need to succeed must also evolve.

To prepare CTE students for career success, educators need to ensure that students also develop essential skills, such as critical thinking and analysis, problem solving and written communication. These real-world skills enable individuals to organize information, define problems, analyze data, construct arguments, and communicate conclusions.

Although in demand by employers of all types, these essential skills are seldom explicitly taught, measured on reliable assessments, or reported on transcripts. To promote effective development of these skills, educators should consider regular assessments that provide student-level data to inform opportunities and improve student outcomes.

The importance of essential academic and career skills

Increasingly, employers seek candidates who are proficient in areas beyond content knowledge and technical skills, ranking critical thinking and analysis, problem solving, collaboration, and communication as essential (Finley, 2021). Yet hiring managers find that few new hires come prepared to analyze and solve problems in real-life situations.

Data from more than 120,000 higher education students who took the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) — a performance-based assessment of critical thinking, problem solving and written communication — show that 60% of students entering higher education are not proficient in these areas. And, though some students develop these skills during higher education, 44% of exiting students still don’t show proficiency upon graduation.

Measuring what students can do

CTE institutions should consider employing an authentic, valid, and reliable measure of academic and career readiness skills. This type of assessment captures what students can do, not just what they know or can recall. The assessment provides a more complete picture of students’ skill levels and can serve as an effective instrument for uncovering strengths and opportunities for improvement.


CLA+ situates students in real-world scenarios where they must analyze information. Students are asked to:

  • Address important issues
  • Evaluate the credibility of various documents
  • Propose solutions to problems
  • Recommend a course of action based on their analysis.

They are instructed to support their recommendations by utilizing information provided within the assessment, such as technical reports, data tables, articles, blogs and emails. As in real life, there is no single correct answer, and scores reflect a range of plausible and effective strategies. This process, by design, mimics realistic decision environments.

CAE’s assessments focus on subskills such as data literacy, critical reading and evaluation, and the ability to critique arguments. These skills grow increasingly relevant in a diverse world where the ability to perceive, integrate and discuss opposing viewpoints is vital.

Developing essential skills skills

Consider an example. A large higher education institution recently introduced a critical thinking program into its undergraduate school of business. The goal was to improve students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills to better prepare them to thrive in the workforce.

All entering students took CAE’s Success Skills Assessment (SSA+) to identify strengths and areas of improvement through individualized reports. Students also received instruction on critical thinking by faculty and completed a collaborative in-class assignment meant to assess performance. The students then presented to the group.

Some graduating students received targeted instruction on critical thinking while others received the standard curriculum.  with no specific module on critical thinking. All graduating students were then assessed using CLA+ during their last semester in the program. Preliminary results showed that the graduating students who received specific instruction on critical thinking outperformed classmates who did not receive the same instruction. This indicates that it is possible — even necessary — to improve students’ essential skills in tandem with content knowledge.

Showcasing essential skills

Further, to help students differentiate themselves, CAE offers evidence-based micro-credentials on three tiered levels: proficient, accomplished and advanced. Credentials such as these can benefit students and their prospective employers, alike. Today’s CTE students are the workforce leaders of tomorrow.

By increasing opportunities for students to develop critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication skills — alongside their academic and technical knowledge — CTE educators can improve student outcomes and help them change the world.


Doris Zahner, Ph.D., is the chief academic officer at Council for Aid to Education, Inc., a nonprofit developer of performance-based and custom assessments that authentically measure students’ essential academic 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 Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and an MS in applied statistics from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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