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Education Reporter

‘Work Keys’ Bolsters School-to-Work
Assessment raises questions as to whose best interests are being served

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IOWA CITY, IA - American College Testing (ACT) has produced a new assessment test called Work Keys, an outcomes-oriented system designed to measure workplace skills. ACT says the test measures skills that are used in a wide range of jobs, are teachable in a reasonable period of time, and can be defined for purposes of job analysis.

The Work Keys System was developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s in response to employers' complaints that schools do not prepare graduates with the desired work skills and habits. "We recognized very early that the needs of business were the engine that would drive Work Keys," said Joel West, former executive director of the ACT Center for Education and Work.

Grades, such as an A in History, do not mean anything to employers, says ACT official Dr. Kelley Hayden. The system, first used in 1992, allows schools and employers to "communicate on the same plane." Dr. Hayden hopes Work Keys facilitates collaboration between schools and business by helping schools to determine how to prepare students more thoroughly for the workplace and to help businesses recruit and manage their human resources better.

Work Keys emerged through consultation with employers, educators, and employment training "experts" from six Charter States, a number of national organizations, and more than 150 businesses of all sizes. This "broad base," says ACT, "ensures that Work Keys serves the need of both business and education nationwide." No mention is made of the needs of students.

The Work Keys System is intended to serve two purposes: (1) to measure an individual's workforce skills against specific job requirements, and (2) to provide guidance on how to improve skills where lacking.

The performance-based assessment is only one aspect of the system. The tests measure students' competency in skills identified by the Department of Labor's SCANS Commission. The scores from the assessments are measured against predetermined levels of job skills proficiency. Students are currently tested on Reading for Information, Applied Mathematics, Listening, Writing, Teamwork, Locating Information, Observation, and Applied Technology. Other skills areas, such as Observation and Work Habits, are slated for future release.

Work Keys involves three other components in addition to the skill assessment: job profiling, instructional support, and reporting. To profile a job, job incumbents or supervisors identify the tasks and skills most important for effective job performance, such as in technical and service/sales industries. Students' skills, as measured by the assessment, are compared to the standards set by job profiles.

ACT provides instructional support through a series of guides for schools and training organizations. The purpose of the guides is to supplement or reinforce existing curricula.

The reporting facet gives individuals, educators, and businesses information provided by the job profiles, skills assessment, and instructional support to determine career choices, plan training programs, and screen prospective employees.

Work Keys is used statewide in 4 to 6 states, including Ohio, where 40,000 students took the test during the 1993-94 school year. The test is also utilized in various cities and districts in 37 states, including Omaha. By 1996, 125 Work Keys Service Centers were operating in 25 states, with community colleges, adult education centers, and employment offices functioning as an extended Service Center network.

Costs vary per pupil, depending on the number and extent to which the assessments are used. Dr. Hayden said that high school students, community college students, and adults moving from welfare to work are the most frequent Work Keys test-takers.

ACT, organized in 1959, develops and publishes standardized tests in the United States, including the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the ACT college entrance exam. The organization claims that Work Keys is one of its fastest-growing programs in America. Through late 1996, 1.5 million Work Keys assessments had been administered.

A Student’s Perspective of Work Keys

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