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New Tests Formulated To Assess Vocational Skills

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Copyright 1982 A group of state vocational-education officials, frustrated by the inadequacy of their students' preparedness to join an increasingly mobile and technologically sophisticated national labor force, have formed a consortium to develop national standards for assessing student achievement in basic occupational skills.

Like those who 50 years ago pioneered the idea of standardized measurements of students' academic achievement, the state vocational specialists are focusing on multiple-choice tests as a key method to establish nationwide standards of accomplishment in a variety of vocational-training fields.

Because of the nature of the subject matter, however, the educators are also developing ways to measure how well students actually perform occupational tasks.

The national achievement tests, called Student Occupational Competency Achievement Tests (socat), are being developed by vocational experts in five states in a broad range of occupational areas, according to Gordon G. McMahon, executive director of the National Occupational Testing Institute (nocti). The non-profit educational corporation initiated the project in 1979, soliciting support from state vocational-education directors across the country.

Testing Models

Models for the achievement tests--assessing the skills of students preparing for entry-level jobs in auto-body repair, auto mechanics, bricklaying, drafting, heating and air-conditioning mechanics, machine trades, refrigeration, and welding--are now being field-tested in New Jersey, Oklahoma, Georgia, Michigan, Maryland, Vermont, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, and New York. Tests in other occupational areas are being developed for trials in those states during 1982, according to Mr. McMahon.

A multiple-choice section of the achievement tests is designed to measure students' knowledge of technical information, understanding of occupation-related principles, and problem-solving abilities. A separate section of the test attempts to assess a student's ability to perform occupational tasks expected of entry-level workers.

Just when the tests are administered depends on state officials, but in general students are being tested after completing a program, often the spring of their senior year.

Tools and Equipment

Stephen J. Seu, coordinator of New Jersey's socat program, said the performance assessment is more important than the multiple-choice test and is weighed accordingly. Until the development of socat, he said, there was no assessment of vocational students' ability to use the tools and equipment of a particular trade and to demonstrate the process of building or repairing a product.

Although state standards exist for assessing occupational skills, officials involved in the consortium say national standards are necessary for testing students who complete vocational programs, especially in view of the nation's increasingly mobile work force.

Many vocational-education specialists argue, however, that students' vocational skills cannot be viewed as distinct from their reading, writing, and computation skills. The serious problems students display in the latter skills impair their mastery of the former, they say.

Vocational students in general are less proficient than college-bound students in those basic academic skills, according to Linda Lotto, research specialist for the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (ncrve). They show about the same level of proficiency in the so-called "basic skills" as students enrolled in general-studies programs. Both groups, she said, test below their grade level on academic skills-assessment tests.

In a session at last month's meeting of the American Vocational Association, Ms. Lotto noted that there is some evidence that vocational students increase their proficiency in basic skills as they continue their schooling. But, she said, their gains in such skills are not as great as those made by students in academic programs.

According to Joe D. Mills, Florida's state director of vocational education, the inability of students to master reading, writing, mathematics, and speaking skills is a longstanding problem that "shows up in their work habits" later when they enter vocational-training courses and are unable to keep up with the classwork.

Shifts Blame

Mr. Mills contended that contrary to the charges of some critics, vocational-education programs are not to blame for those deficiencies; students have them when they arrive.

But Jay L. Thornton, coordinator of special vocational programs for Rutgers University, said he believes much of the problem lies with teachers and administrators in vocational-skills programs who fail to recognize that their students learn different subjects at different rates of speed.

He argued that some students have difficulty reading and understanding in vocational courses because they are confronted with technical language. Certain basic "occupational skills" need to be taught in the vocational classroom, he said; students need to learn the language of carpentry or auto mechanics or drafting. "These occupational reading skills cannot be taught in elementary grades nor can they be taught in the same manner that people are taught to read the newspaper," Mr. Thornton claimed.

He suggested that the reluctance of some vocational teachers to address the problems of their individual students contributes to the 30-percent to 60-percent attrition rate among students in postsecondary vocational-technical training schools.

James Dunn, director of the Cornell [University] Institute for Occupational Education, said that if vocational-education teachers were given proper guidance, they could help students develop general and technical skills in the classroom.

Proficiency Demanded

Changes in social expectations, in the economy, and in the public perception of the educational system's responsibilities demand that students develop proficiency in basic skills before they are employed, he said.

One effect of the proposed national testing program, participating state education officials point out, is that the socat test scores can be used to assure employers that students who have completed a vocational program are prepared for entry-level positions.

"If we can develop enough of these measures and they are accepted in the field," Mr. Seu said, "a student's prospective employer could request the student's socat scores," just as colleges request transcripts prior to admitting academic students.

The biggest drawback, according to Mr. Seu, appears to be the length of time it takes to develop each achievement test primarily because so few states are participating in creating them. He estimates that there are about 240 occupational titles but currently the consortium is considering only those occupations for which a large number of students are now training.

Francis T. Tuttle, Oklahoma's state director of vocational and technical education, said he does not expect the socat concept to be accepted quickly nationwide, but he called the consortium's effort a good start.

"While there may be regional differences," Mr. Tuttle noted, "there is a basic core of occupational skills that you can adapt to those regional differences. If we can ever get this accepted nationally, it will ultimately be valid and used."

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