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Firms Moving To Use School Data in Hiring

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Before they ever get a job interview, would-be mechanics at the Boeing Co. undergo four hours of extensive testing.

The new pre-employment evaluation includes multiple-choice questions designed to test reading comprehension and understanding of spatial relations and mechanics. The session wraps up with a video depicting a half-dozen work-related situations, after which applicants are asked how they'd react.

One thing they're not asked, however, is for a copy of their high school records. In fact, the prospective mechanics are not required to have a high school diploma, although the company prefers it.

"Businesses don't put a lot of confidence in the high school credentials," said Ronn Robinson, the director of education policy at the Seattle-based aircraft manufacturer, which employs more than 100,000 workers.

Although that attitude is widely held among employers, a growing number of business leaders and educators say that examination of school records must become a significant part of the hiring process.

Such proposals emerged as a major point of agreement at the recent education summit in Palisades, N.Y., where 49 corporate executives pledged to "require applicants to demonstrate academic achievement through school-based records," starting within a year. (See Education Week, April 3, 1996.).

Many of the companies represented, including Boeing, are now studying ways of including a review of school records in hiring decisions.

Most educators and employers agree that the idea would add an important element to school-reform efforts: a clear incentive for students to achieve. That is seen as especially critical for the 38 percent of high school graduates who don't go straight to college.

"American kids don't see a big connection between how hard they study in high school and their labor-market prospects," said John Bishop, the chairman of the department of human resources studies at Cornell University's industrial and labor-relations school in Ithaca, N.Y. "The rewards are more for seat time."

Whether the millions of employers who weren't at the education summit will also change their hiring habits to a degree that would affect the study habits of American students remains to be seen.

Many business executives have complained about the lack of standardization in school records and the inconvenience of obtaining them, and even questioned the legality of basing decisions on them.

Making It Matter

But current proponents of the idea say those concerns are more perceived than real. They point to the experience of a few companies that have traditionally asked for school records as evidence that it can be done.

The Procter & Gamble Co., which employs more than 40,000 workers in North America, has checked high school records of young applicants for years.

"We've used them to verify data and conclusions that we reach on our own," said Bob Wehling, a spokesman for the Cincinnati-based company. "The single most important thing is communicating that what they do in school is important and relevant because somebody's going to be looking."

Although many business leaders believe that collecting school records from applicants would encourage students to study harder, many also question whether the records they'd get would be useful.

Employers who ask for them often find it hard to make sense of the multitude of course titles and grading scales used by different schools and districts.

If, that is, they can get their hands on the records in the first place.

"Employers want to make a decision fast," Mr. Bishop said. "In many cases, the high schools are not responding quickly, and in some cases, never."

A Model State

Les Dukart, whose family owns five McDonald's restaurants in Delaware and one in Pennsylvania, believes the benefits of using school records outweigh the effort. He estimates that about half of his 400 employees are age 20 or younger.

"It would be difficult," Mr. Dukart said in a recent interview. "But it would be worth it."

It is frustrating and costly, he said, to go through an orientation with a prospective employee who then walks out two days later. School records help him weed out the unreliable applicants earlier.

He now asks 15-year-old applicants to provide their report cards, and said he is considering requiring 16-year-olds to do the same.

Although he looks for students with a B average, Mr. Dukart said school attendance can be just as good an indicator.

"The grades don't have to be all A's or B's, but they need to show some desire," he said.

If Mr. Dukart does require more applicants to provide high school grades, Delaware has an unusual system in place to help him get them faster.

In 1994, an alliance of business and education leaders in the state established the Hire Education program to streamline the process. The group helped install fax machines at each of the state's high schools so that employers could send transcript requests directly to guidance counselors, who pledged to respond within 48 hours.

The alliance has also urged Delaware businesses to request school records for young job applicants.

"It's ridiculous to tell students [the high school record] matters, when they know it doesn't," said Carole White, a management-information specialist at the state education department. "So we're trying to make it matter."

The program's next step is to design a statewide transcript that will include standardized course titles to make the records more meaningful. Ms. White plans to phase in the new form by spring 1997.

Legal Concerns

Though school records may be useful, some employers aren't sure if it's legal to use them.

The concern stems from a 25-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that left many human resources professionals skittish about demanding information from applicants that might not seem job-related.

In Griggs v. Duke Power Co., black employees sued the North Carolina utility over a policy that required employees to have high school diplomas and pass a general "intelligence" test to qualify for promotions. The group argued that the requirements violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discriminating against black workers.

The high court in 1971 ruled against the power company, saying it based hiring decisions on information that wasn't related to the jobs.

Employers cannot give such information "controlling force," if the practice tends to exclude certain groups of people, explained Jonathan Segal, a Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in employment discrimination.

But, he said, the case needn't keep employers from obtaining high school transcripts.

"If the employer does it appropriately, the risks are not as great as people think," he said. The key is making sure the practice doesn't discriminate.

"A lot of human resources people got scared and said that the Supreme Court says it's illegal," agreed Douglas Hill, who directs the Delaware alliance. "But the court wasn't saying that. The Supreme Court was saying you can't use [the records] as a filter."

Slow Going

Although about 250 Delaware businesses have pledged to ask for student transcripts since the Hire Education program began in October 1994, more than 14,000 others have not.

"There are not enough businesses taking part yet to have made a significant impact on the students," said Syd Goldberg, a guidance counselor at William Penn High School in Newcastle.

He estimated that he has received about 25 faxed requests from businesses for transcripts this school year, while he has helped place about 300 students in jobs.

"We're trying to reverse a habit that businesses have had for six or seven decades," Mr. Hill said. "It's not going to turn around overnight."

Though support for using transcripts won support among corporate executives at the education summit this spring, many experts say the idea won't make a difference without widespread participation by small businesses, which hire more high school graduates and young workers.

"If we did it and no one else did, it's not going to solve the problem," said Mr. Robinson of Boeing.

But proponents see the use of transcripts by employers as the first step in a broad attempt to give greater meaning to the high school diploma.

If the practice becomes widespread, they believe, then schools will raise their own standards and start responding more to the needs of business.

"The impact of this is going to be when we have lots of students and lots of businesses doing it," said Mr. Bishop of Cornell. "Then it will drive students to take tougher courses and involve employers in schools in ways that affect how teachers teach."

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