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Business Groups Back System To Measure Skills of Graduates

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In a development that has wide-ranging implications for schools, two major business groups are lining up support for a plan to create a system to assess high-school graduates' skills and make the results available to potential employers.

Late last week, officials of the American Business Conference met to discuss ways to implement the idea. The conference, which represents chief executive officers of medium-size companies, is backing the plan along with the National Alliance of Business, a group that encourages partnerships between the public and private sectors.

If the proposal gains the support of businesses and educators, spokesmen for the groups say, the system could be in place in about 20 test sites by 1991.

Under the plan, which is being developed by the Educational Testing Service, information about students' records--including the results of a new performance-based test--would be placed in a computer databank that employers could use to evaluate potential employees.

The system, ETS officials point out, would provide for employers the kind of information about the abilities of non-college-bound students that colleges routinely use in evaluating candidates for admission.

If it is used by businesses, its proponents say, the system could open up job opportunities for youths by allowing employers to find skilled graduates they might otherwise not know about, and pay them according to their level of ability.

At the same time, they predict, the system could motivate all students to perform well in school by letting them know what skills employers need and rewarding students for attaining them.

Currently, "if you're a high-school graduate, you're a high-school graduate," said Michael Markels Jr., president of Versar Inc., an environmental firm in Springfield, Va.

"It doesn't matter if you get straight A's or are near the bottom," continued Mr. Markels, a member of the American Business Conference's education task force. "We never ask."

Officials from the two business groups said last week that the business leaders and educators they have contacted so far have enthusiastically embraced the plan. But some critics warn that it may strain an already overloaded testing system, without providing much information that is not already available to employers.

In addition, suggested Theodore R. Sizer, chairman of the education department at Brown University, the plan dodges the more pressing issue, which is that schools are in bad shape and need to be fixed. Businesses, he said, would do better to emulate the RJR Nabisco Foundation, which this month agreed to provide $30 million in grants to schools to take risks to create "new learning environments."

Officials from RJR Nabisco, Mr. Sizer said, "realized the system is flawed, and it's got to change, rather than what we need is better tests in the pathology lab."

"We need more corporations to think that way and accept the complexity of the problem," he said.

The proposal for the new system comes as a growing number of business leaders are warning of a "skills gap" between the abilities of high-school graduates and the needs of an increasingly technical workplace.

Last month, for example, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elizabeth H. Dole said she would create a commission of business, education, and labor leaders to define the skills that business and industry need to stay competitive in the world marketplace and that workers need to cope with new technologies.

"Simply put, America's workforce is in a state of unreadiness," Ms. Dole said.

In part, said John Bishop, associate professor of economics at Cornell University's school of industrial and labor relations, the gap reflects the fact that American students, in contrast to those in Western Europe, lack an incentive to work any harder in high school than the minimum amount needed to earn a diploma.

"In the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, and Italy," he noted, "students take a battery of exams. How well they do is a critical determinant in whether they get a job. They have a strong incentive to work hard in high school."

Moreover, he said, these patterns also affect businesses' hiring practices. Unlike firms in Europe, he said, American companies tend not to hire youths out of high school for high-paying, career-oriented jobs in the so-called "primary labor market."

"American high-school graduates don't enter the primary labor market until years after graduation, because they seem to employers to be one big schmeer of undisciplined, poorly educated young people," he said. "That stereotype may apply to some, but not to the general population."

Mr. Bishop's views have drawn support from Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The union leader recently devoted his newspaper column to the topic of creating job incentives for improving students' academic performance in school.

In an effort to provide greater information about students' skills and an incentive for students to work harder, several states have created differentiated diplomas that vary according to students' levels of achievement.

For example, this year Ohio will institute a four-tiered system, ranging from a "certificate of attendance" to an advanced degree for those who graduate with distinction.

But the computerized system, known as "Worklink," that is being proposed by the two business groups for use nationwide is aimed at providing more detailed information in a readily accessible form.

Under the proposal, students who chose to participate could elect to include on the system information about their work experience and extracurricular activities, as well as academic transcripts, teacher recommendations, and the results of the proposed skills test. (See sample on this page.)

George Elford, director of the Washington office of the ETS and manager of the Worklink project, said he will convene an advisory group of business leaders and educators to determine the content of the test. But he said it would most likely measure performance in skills most employers consider vital for the job market, including reading, computation, writing, listening, oral communication, thinking and problem solving, and "learning to learn."

"This will not be a paper-and-pencil test," he said. "We'll use teacher ratings and other kinds of assessments. This is not a Saturday-morning test everybody takes and gets a score on."

Mr. Elford added that students would be evaluated by their level of proficiency--basic, intermediate, or advanced--rather than according to a numerical scale.

"Employers can't tell what a 90 is, or what the 11th-grade level is," he said. "They can tell from performance levels."

Although the system would be voluntary, it could be effective only if students participated and businesses used the information, added Mr. Markels of the business conference.

"The two things required for success," he said, "are if enough kids take it so that it is a predictor of success [on the job] businesses can use, and that enough businesses use the predictor so it is worthwhile to take the test."

The proposed system would likely exert only a modest influence on high-school curricula, Mr. Elford said.

"I don't see it turning the curriculum on its ear," he said. "There may be more applied problems than theoretical, but there's a lot of that already."

Business leaders have tended to ask schools to develop the same skills students need in all aspects of their lives, added Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States.

"So far, business has been very thoughtful," he said. "If anything, more thoughtful" than other groups.

"They are not saying 'We want students to know free-enterprise economics and accounting,"' Mr. Newman added. "They want very fundamental, basic skills."

If the system proved successful, it would benefit both employers and students, proponents say.

For companies, the system would help in recruiting from a wider pool, said Barry Rogstead, president of the American Business Conference.

"The limited labor force in the country is a severe problem," he said. "It is not only responsible public policy, but essential that business attract labor."

The system would also encourage companies to pay workers according to their level of ability, said Esther F. Schaeffer, senior vice president of the National Alliance of Business. Currently, she said, firms pay the same starting wage to all workers, regardless of whether they need additional training.

But Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, countered that such a system was unnecessary for improving recruitment. Most of the information it would provide is already available from schools, he said.

"The last thing in the world schools need is one more test," he said. "There is ample evidence of the extent to which kids can do math and read."

But Richard D. Miller, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said the system would make the available information more accessible.

And, said Mr. Elford of the ETS, schools are not always forthcoming about student data. He said that an insurance company once asked for 12,000 transcripts for prospective applicants, and received 73.

In addition to the advantages for employers, Mr. Elford argued, the system could also boost job opportunities for youths, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

"Everybody can go up the ladder and be at the top," he said. "Businesses will not be weeding out, but zeroing in on kids who have skills."

Moreover, he said, the system would be a "leveler."

"The rich kid who can send in a bond-paper resume can't get an advantage," Mr. Elford continued. "They will be competing on their record, rather than on packaging. This gives a foot in the door to kids who can't find the door."

But Mr. Newman of the ECS said the system could eventually limit the aspirations of students judged to be at a lower level of skills.

The stated purpose of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, he noted, was to eliminate the disadvantage that "a kid out there in Xenia, Ohio," had in applying to Harvard University.

"It was liberating rather than limiting," he said. "Over time, it began to be limiting. The same could happen here in the same way."

Perhaps the most substantial advantage of the system, said Mr. Rogstead of the business conference,would be its effect on students' motivation to succeed in high school.

"If a student begins to realize that information over which he has control will be acted upon by potential employers, he begins to say, 'I've got control over my destiny,"' Mr. Rogstead said. "He may begin to change his behavior a bit."

Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, compared the plan to the efforts by states to encourage students to stay in school by denying drivers' licenses to dropouts.

"I would like it better if young people would learn more for the sheer joy of it," Mr. Finn said. "Until that day is dawning, we'd better appeal to their self-interest."

But Fred M. Newmann, professor of curriculum and instruction and director of the National Center on Effective Secondary Schools at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, questioned whether the system would offer an effective incentive.

"Generally, extrinsic motivators are overrated in their ability to engage the most disenchanted kids in school," he said."

As an example, he noted that Eugene M. Lang and other sponsors of programs to guarantee tuition for youths who remain in school and go on to college have found that they needed to provide additional services.

"It's hard to imagine a better motivator than paying tuition," Mr. Newmann said. "That's not enough for some kids. They need personal support and mentoring."

Rather than develop a new system for evaluating graduates, added Mr. Newman of the ECS, firms should aid reform efforts so that the high-school diploma represents the attainment of needed skills and knowledge.

"In the long run, the answer is to fix the schools," he said.

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