Help Students Build Portrait of a Graduate Skills

Help Students Build Portrait of a Graduate Skills

Ensure students develop the higher-order skills included in your Portrait of a Graduate and that are needed to take on the opportunities and challenges of the classroom and the workplace.

Blueprint for Success Checklist

Checklist: 7 Steps to Create a Portrait of a Graduate

Portrait of a Graduate: Preparing Students for Success in the 21st Century

Are we measuring student success accurately?

The common criteria used to measure student academic achievement in K–12 schools are more than 50 years old. Fifty years ago, the world was very different — the first pocket calculator was invented, color TVs were just becoming mainstream, and we had only recently landed on the moon. Today, technology has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, including how we learn, how we communicate, and how we work. So why are we using the same criteria for measuring student success?

In today’s fast-paced, innovation economy, students simply graduating on time with the right academic credentials is no longer sufficient to ensure success in higher education and the workplace. Students need to possess a wide range of higher-order skills and attributes that go beyond academic knowledge.

To ensure students have the knowledge, skills, experiences, and mindset needed to be future ready, a growing number of states and school districts are adopting Portrait of a Graduate frameworks.

What is a Portrait of a Graduate?

Simply put, a Portrait of a Graduate outlines a comprehensive vision for student success that goes beyond academic knowledge to include skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and social responsibility. 

Educators, policymakers, and community leaders agree that to prepare students for today and tomorrow’s job market we can no longer rely solely on traditional academic achievement measures like test scores and grades. In fact, a growing consensus of education leaders and other stakeholders are advocating for more holistic approaches to measuring student achievement. As of December 2023, 17 states and 126 school districts have adopted Portraits of a Graduate. These frameworks guide schools in developing curricula, assessment, and learning experiences that support the development of future-ready skills and attributes in their students. 

A Portrait of a Graduate represents the skills, character traits, and social and emotional competencies that a state or district believes students need to succeed in college, career, and life in the 21st century.

Why Is Portrait of a Graduate Important?

Portrait of a Graduate redefines what it means to be a successful graduate. This new definition is more accurate in today’s fast-paced, innovative environment and addresses an increasing gap between the skills students possess after graduating high school and those they need in college and the workplace. 

Here are a few of the main issues Portrait of a Graduate aims to address:

  • College Readiness: The 2021–22 college graduation rate in the U.S. was 37%. Many students who enroll in college require remedial courses in ELA and/or math. And 60% of U.S. students entering colleges and universities are not proficient in critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication. Source: CLA+ data from Fall 2013 (AY14) throughout Spring 2019 (AY18)
  • Career Readiness: Research shows that students are not graduating from higher education institutions with the higher-order skills that employers want. This means students are not learning these skills in secondary school or higher education settings.
  • Employer Needs: A 2020 McKinsey Global Survey found that only one-third of respondents say their companies are prepared to cope with the workforce disruptions resulting from technology and market trends. Hiring managers are responding by putting greater emphasis on higher-order skills.

While there is no single solution that can close these gaps, Portrait of a Graduate is a step toward not only creating a modern definition of success but transforming K–12 education to provide more relevant learning experiences for students that align with what’s needed to be successful today, tomorrow, and in the future.

Portrait of a female student holding note pad in the corridor
Portrait of successful hispanic business man looks directly at the camera, smile. Happy male freelancer or student standing in modern office or university library
Portrait of confident Asian female teacher in classroom

What Skills Do Portrait of a Graduate Frameworks Include?

Each state and district tailors their Portrait of a Graduate to their own unique needs. Here are a couple of examples:

Portrait Attributes

  • Engaged citizens
  • Critical thinking
  • Effective communication
  • Empowered learners
  • Creative contributors
  • Productive collaborators

Portrait Attributes

  • Critical thinking
  • Innovative problem solving
  • Literacy within all content areas
  • Cultural awareness
  • Social-emotional learning
  • Effective communication
  • Global citizens

But there are a few core competencies that all Portraits of a Graduate initiatives include. These are critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills.

Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves the ability to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information to make informed decisions and solve problems. It’s a vital skill for all career paths because it enables individuals to approach challenges with a thoughtful and discerning mindset.

Problem Solving

Problem-solving skills are crucial in addressing the many complex issues that arise in the workplace. Individuals need to be able to  identify problems, develop creative and effective solutions, and adapt their strategies as needed.

Written Communication

Effective written communication is essential for conveying ideas, sharing information, and collaborating with colleagues. Strong writing skills are valuable not only for creating reports, proposals, and documentation but also for clear and concise communication with supervisors and co-workers.

WatchPortrait of a Graduate Webinar this webinar to learn how Portrait of a Graduate complements and supports rigorous academic standards and how to measure student progress toward mastering future-ready skills.

A Common Missing Piece: Measuring Portrait of a Graduate Skill Proficiency

For a Portrait of a Graduate to move beyond a vision, districts must determine how they’ll track student progress and measure success in building the identified skills and attributes. Common multiple choice assessments that are used to measure reading, math, and science comprehension aren’t effective in measuring higher-order skills. But these skills can be measured with well-crafted performance-based assessments. These types of assessments place students in real-world situations that require them to put skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and written communication to use. Data from performance-based assessments can be used to demonstrate students’ proficiency with Portrait of a Graduate skills and provide insights to teachers and administrators about the effectiveness of programs and curricula.

Why Proficiency Data Is Important

Evaluating the impact of your Portrait of a Graduate is crucial to demonstrate program effectiveness, to refine and enhance its implementation, and to ensure students are receiving the supports they need.


School budgets require evidence that dollars are being well spent. Creating a plan to demonstrate proficiency will help ensure your Portrait of a Graduate initiative is sustainable and has longevity.


Data can help you understand which areas of your portrait are working and how you can make adjustments to make it more effective. Using data-driven decision-making will ensure that your program remains effective and in tune with your goals.

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Quality data will help you know which skills students are proficient in and which need more attention. These data can be used to tailor instruction and interventions to ensure students are getting the best support possible.

CAE’s Solution to Support Portrait of a Graduate Skill Building

Most Portraits of a Graduate include critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills — the competencies that CAE’s Higher-Order Skills Solution teaches and measures.

Performance-Based Assessments

CAE’s College and Career Readiness Assessment (CCRA+) is a performance-based higher-order skills assessment that measures cornerstone Portrait of a Graduate competencies and provides insights to help students become proficient in the skills they need to succeed in college and their careers. 

The assessment helps students learn how to analyze problems systematically and logically, understand the connection between ideas, re-evaluate their beliefs based on facts, and be curious about the world. CCRA+ also helps students build confidence and resilience; articulate their thoughts, ideas, and opinions; and effectively communicate with diverse audiences. All of these are critical components of any Portrait of a Graduate framework.

How CCRA+ Measures Portrait of a Graduate Skills


Real-World Scenarios

Students are situated in real-world scenarios that require the application of critical thinking, problem-solving, and written communication skills.


Recommend a Solution

Using supplied reference materials, students must organize information, define the problem, address issues, and recommend and defend a course of action.


No Single “Right” Answer

Student scores reflect a range of plausible and effective response strategies — a process that, by design, mimics real-world decision environments.

The resulting data can be used for formative and summative purposes, including evaluating how well students have developed Portrait of a Graduate skills at the beginning and/or end of a particular class or academic year, or to measure growth over multiple years.

Take a look at our sample assessments:

Actionable Data and Reports

CCRA+ includes reports that provide actionable insights for educators as they support students in developing their Portrait of a Graduate skills.

Student Reports

Each student receives a personalized report that details their individual strengths and opportunities for development and growth with critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication. These data can be used as a roadmap to guide students in which Portrait of a Graduate skills they need to prioritize developing so they are able to achieve their future pursuits and goals.

Institution Reports

Institution reports provide an overview of a school or district’s scores and how they compare to CAE’s U.S. normed sample. Educators can use these data to:

  • Identify school- or district-wide trends and adjust instruction to improve outcomes 
  • Demonstrate to stakeholders progress toward achieving the Portrait of a Graduate vision 
  • Refine and improve programs

 Here are some examples of how CCRA+ data can be used to support student growth:


Students and families can use the data to:

  • Identify their competence in higher-order skills
  • Evaluate how they compare to peers in their institution and across CAE’s national sample
  • Develop a plan to build these essential skills

State, district, and school leaders can use the data to:  

  • Identify overall mastery of higher-order skills and student growth across grade levels  
  • Compare student scores to CAE’s extensive national data sample
  • Measure the effectiveness of instruction and interventions
  • Track progress toward goals outlined in your Portrait of a Graduate

Teachers, counselors, and academic advisors can use the data to: 

  • Gain insight into class and individual student’s strengths and opportunities for growth
  • Create targeted intervention and supports
  • Guide whole class instruction of higher-order skills

Critical Thinking Instructional Materials

In order to develop Portrait of a Graduate skills, students must:

  • Learn about the skills, including why they are important, through explicit classroom instruction 
  • Apply the skills across curricula 
  • Reflect on how they have grown and how they can continue to develop their skills 

CAE’s Higher-Order Skills Solution includes instructional materials, practice assessments, and teacher professional development to support the integration of critical thinking instruction into daily classroom lessons. 

Ready to Get Started?

Schedule a time to chat with us to learn more about how CAE’s Higher-Order Skills Solution can support your students in developing their Portrait of a Graduate skills.