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Patchwork of Prototypes Will Help Guide Skills Board

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Early next year, Congress is expected to approve the creation of a national board to help set skills standards for various occupations. But such a board would not be starting from scratch, according to a study released last week by the Education Department.

The four-volume report, "Skills Standards in the U.S. and Abroad,'' found that some form of skills standards already exists for 168 occupations in the United States, ranging from heating-and-cooling mechanics to graphic artists.

But the development of such standards has been haphazard. For example, 21 groups offer nursing certificates, while other industrial sectors--such as agriculture and mining--have no industrywide skills standards.

In addition, few credentialing programs are targeted at entry-level workers, and there is no one set of occupational standards recognized by every state.

"The good news is that there's a lot happening in the field,'' Augusta Souza Kappner, the department's assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, said in releasing the report.

But the wide array of approaches, she added, "reinforces for us that there is a need for the federal government to play a role in developing a framework.''

The Clinton Administration has made the development of voluntary national skills standards a cornerstone of its efforts to strengthen the American workforce. Such standards, said Ms. Kappner, could help close the gap between the skills that high school graduates possess and those that employers want.

Until now, she argued, business and industry have not sent "clear signals'' about the skills, knowledge, and ability levels that are required for on-the-job performance.

Potential Federal Role

The Education and Labor departments are currently funding 22 pilot projects to develop industry-based skills standards. Last month, the Education Department awarded $3.5 million in new grants to develop such standards in nine industries.

One of the "hardest tasks'' facing a national skills-standards board, Ms. Kappner said, will be defining the broad occupational clusters in which such standards should be developed.

"The hope is that over the next three or four years, there will be voluntary national skills standards in at least the great majority of growing occupations,'' added Douglas Ross, the Labor Department's assistant secretary for employment and training.

The study, conducted by the Institute for Educational Leadership, a nonprofit research group based here, stresses that industry must take the lead in developing skills standards. But it outlines a number of functions for the federal government.

These include establishing a quasi-independent organization that can help the various stakeholders reach consensus about how skills standards should be defined and measured.

In addition, more research needs to be conducted on how to assess whether individuals have the necessary knowledge and skills to enter an occupation. Most of the existing certification systems rely on paper-and-pencil tests, the study found. But, it adds, "no one form of assessment or testing was identified as being superior.''

Joan L. Wills, the study's principal investigator, also stressed that new mechanisms must be created to help translate the standards into workable curricula for education-and-training programs.

In addition, the quality of instructors within existing programs was "consistently identified as a concern,'' the report says.

The study also advocates more research to identify and measure the competencies that can best be learned within the workplace rather than in the classroom.

In addition to the United States, the study reviewed skills-standards systems in Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, and Japan. Most other countries, it found, are more advanced than the United States in their support of skills standards.

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