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19 States Drafting Work-Skills Standards, N.G.A. Says

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At least 19 states have begun working with industry to develop standards for what workers should know and be able to do, according to a soon-to-be-released report.

The report by the National Governors' Association provides ammunition for the Clinton Administration's proposal to create a national board that would help set voluntary occupational-skills standards and certificates. (See related story, page 22.)

The study, based on a phone survey of 19 states that have begun working to draft such standards, found that they are time consuming and costly and, as a result, difficult for states to undertake on their own.

In addition, state officials surveyed said a national system would provide some consistency and coherence to their efforts, prevent duplication, and result in credentials that are more portable across states.

"They very much are supporting the creation of a national board. We need that national kind of framework,'' said Evelyn Ganzglass, the director of employment and social-services policy studies for the N.G.A.

The study was prepared by Ms. Ganzglass and Martin Simon, the organization's director of training and employment.

In addition to the phone survey, the report is based on case studies of three states that are developing skills standards and on a focus group of state and national representatives.

It was conducted under a grant from the National Center on Education and the Economy as part of its workforce-skills program, which is funded by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund.

Industry Leadership Key

The report shows that a number of states have already begun developing skills standards and certificates, even without federal guidance.

Most state officials said they began working on skills standards to improve vocational education, although some initiatives are part of a larger school-reform or workforce-development strategy.

Iowa, for example, has developed skills standards that cover 135 occupations; Maine has skills standards for 32 occupations; and Georgia, for nine occupational areas.

The initiatives are being driven by governors, legislatures, and state education agencies. But business has played a key role in every state by serving on policy councils, vocational-education advisory committees, and technical committees that are charged with developing standards.

Under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984, for example, every state was required to create at least two technical committees to help identify the competencies employers need from vocational-education graduates, and most states have created far more.

Ms. Ganzglass said state leaders "really felt that industry needed to be in a leadership position'' in the development of skills standards.

Fragmented Efforts

The report also found, however, that current standards-setting efforts are fragmented both within and among states.

States differ widely in how they define skills standards, whether they are developing such standards for entry- or advanced-level workers, and the number and breadth of occupational categories for which the standards are being created.

Although officials stressed that certificates based on the standards should be highly portable, none of the states surveyed had yet developed a statewide certification system.

Instead, most states were using skills standards to design and accredit training programs and not to certify individuals who met the standards. Where certification exists, it is largely provided by industry associations or state licensing bodies.

Methods to assess whether students achieve the standards also vary widely and are left largely to individual education-and-training institutions, especially at the postsecondary level.

Several states, including Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Illinois, and Vermont, are developing statewide assessment systems, however, and a number are exploring the use of portfolios and performance-based assessments in addition to paper-and-pencil tests.

States such as Vermont, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin also plan to create statewide certification systems over the next few years.

Roots in Vocational Education

States generally have used similar methods to develop skills standards, the study found.

They have drawn heavily on previous work in the vocational-education field, including that of the Vocational-Technical Education Consortium of States and the "Developing a Curriculum'' process created in Canada in the late 1970's and modified at Ohio State University.

Under such procedures, technical committees of workers and supervisors identify the tasks and duties associated with a specific occupation or cluster of occupations. A second group of industry experts reviews the list and returns it to the technical committees for revision and validation.

But some state officials questioned whether the approach, in which lists of job-related tasks and skills are developed for narrow occupations, can result in standards that are sufficiently broad and flexible to accommodate changing workplace needs. They urged that standards be developed more holistically and not be confined to narrow job titles and tasks.

Danger in Diversity

Without the framework that a national skills-standards board could provide, the report warns, "there is a danger that the various national, state, and industry initiatives under way will develop in different directions and become entrenched in their respective approaches.''

State officials also said a national effort could accelerate the standards-setting process. Several states have already abandoned their efforts because of the expense or because they are waiting for further guidance from the national level.

But respondents stressed that the national effort should build on the significant body of work already under way in the states and not impose a "single national model.''

According to those surveyed, such a system should be comprehensive, with standards, assessments, and certificates that can be used by both the public and private sectors for entry- and advanced-level workers.

The primary state role, they said, should be to incorporate the standards into state education and workforce-development policies and to infuse them into program and curriculum design, performance measures, occupational licensing, and regulations. In addition, states need to harmonize industry-based skills standards and school-based education standards so that young people are prepared to work or continue their education after graduation.

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