'Work Keys' Job-Skills Assessment Finally Catching On
Four years after the Work Keys job-skills test was put on the market, it is just now beginning to reach its potential for linking students' career goals with employers' needs.
Work Keys, a product of the ACT Inc. testing company, is being used widely in four states and a smattering of cities elsewhere. The number of people who took the test jumped 41 percent last year. And it just received its strongest endorsement to date from a national education association.
The Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals last month made three of the eight Work Keys assessments a requirement for students posting their records on a new on-line job service called SCRIBE. ("NASSP To Offer On-Line Job Service for Students," Feb. 11, 1998.)
"Employers want to see skill data. That's the Christmas dinner for them," George Elford, an NASSP senior consultant who designed SCRIBE, said in explaining why the program gives such prominence to Work Keys.
ACT Inc. created Work Keys because there was no way at the time to test job skills that people could do something to improve, said Thomas Saterfiel, the senior vice president for workforce and professional services for the Iowa City, Iowa-based nonprofit company. Existing tests for employability "were more suited to aptitude and personality--human traits you couldn't alter," he said.
Work Keys, meanwhile, assesses a test-taker's skills in applied mathematics, applied technology, listening, writing, locating information, observation, reading for information, and teamwork. All eight sections cost a total of $41.50 per student.
In addition, the Work Keys program includes instructional materials for schools and a process for businesses to profile specific jobs according to what skill levels are required. The idea is that businesses can weigh an applicant's test scores in deciding whether he or she is qualified for the work.
The Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont company's nylon plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., uses Work Keys in filling its manufacturing jobs because it's a "developmental tool" rather than just a "screening tool," said Joe Rowe, the plant's personnel manager. Unlike aptitude tests, Work Keys provides a way for employees who have been tested to improve their skills, he said.
"We're fortunate to find an educational tool that links education to industry so that we can communicate with the educators and tell them what our needs are," Mr. Rowe said. "Work Keys is the only tool that allowed us to do that."
In the long run, ACT Inc. hopes that businesses across the country will value Work Keys in the same way that colleges value the company's signature admissions exam, the ACT, Mr. Saterfiel said.
"The success of the ACT assessment is that colleges use the results," he said. "The same thing has to be true of Work Keys."
But Mr. Saterfiel acknowledged that the job-skills test has a long way to go. "We always expected this would be something that would take years to grow," he said.
In 1996-97, 643,000 students and adults took at least some portion of the Work Keys test, compared with 457,000 in 1995-96.
Business support also is growing, albeit slowly. The Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co. has authorized the use of Work Keys for hiring in its plants nationwide. As of last year, 1,037 businesses around the country had participated in the program's job profiles.
Any sluggishness in demand for Work Keys is not the fault of the instrument, said Edward D. Roeber, the director of student-assessment programs for the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.
"I didn't expect something like this to be a popular seller, because of people's attitudes about work readiness," Mr. Roeber said in a recent interview. "I view it as successful."
Mr. Roeber said educators and even many business people tend to believe that "if you just raise math and reading skills, students that are unemployable will be employable." In fact, he said, people need many other skills--the kinds tested by Work Keys--to do well in a job.
Work Keys was originally designed to test adults, not high school students, Mr. Saterfiel said.
But because state K-12 education agencies were the first to express interest in the test, it was piloted among high school students, particularly those in vocational programs. High school students still make up roughly 90 percent of Work Keys test-takers.
In Tennessee, the only state that gives all eight sections of Work Keys in its high schools, education officials are using the test to comply with state legislation that requires students to take an exit exam before graduating.
When it first used Work Keys in 1994, Tennessee required all vocational education students to take the test. The state changed its approach last year so that all high school seniors now choose between Work Keys, the SAT, or the ACT. Last year, about one-quarter of the state's seniors, or 12,500 students, took Work Keys.
In Chattanooga, prominent employers such as McKee Foods Corp. and DuPont are using the test for hiring employees.
"When DuPont jumped on board with Work Keys locally, a number of other companies took notice," said Alan Artress, the Chattanooga area's Work Keys coordinator, who is employed by Chattanooga State Technical Community College.
Mr. Artress visits high schools occasionally to promote the test. "I try to go in and talk with the kids before they take it," he said. "I tell them not just to blow it off. It can be the difference between working at Taco Bell and making $5.50 an hour and working at DuPont and making $10.50 an hour."
The administrator for Work Keys in the Chattanooga-area school system, however, downplayed local interest in the test.
"I don't think the students take that test very seriously because not that many industries require the results of Work Keys to match employees to job requirements," said Andy Holt, the director of career and technical education for the 43,000-student Hamilton County school system, which includes Chattanooga. But, he added, "it's beginning to catch on."
Work Keys has also had implementation problems. In past years, the test was given so late in the school year that the results were returned to many districts after the test-takers had graduated.
"The test is not being used for what it was supposed to be used for, because the kids never get their results," said Amy Ragland, the president of the Tennessee School Counselors Association. She hopes the problem will be fixed this year, because the test will be given in March instead of late spring.
Other states where Work Keys is used prominently include Mississippi, Ohio, and West Virginia.
In some communities, business people and educators have worked together to launch the Work Keys program locally.
In Omaha, Neb., the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce began promoting the test with businesses at the same time the 45,000-student school system started using it.
Six of the seven public high schools in Omaha use Work Keys as a diagnostic tool. They test students when they're in 9th and 10th grades, then again as 12th graders to see whether their scores go up. The school system trains teachers in how to plan lessons to teach Work Keys skills.
The Omaha World-Herald Foundation, along with a grant from Nebraska lottery income, has helped cover the cost of the test--estimated to be $125,000 this year. Twenty-eight businesses in the community have completed job profiles.
Still, educators see the test as an internal tool more than as a way to link students with businesses.
"The lofty goals and intent were for the business community to come forward and say, 'Yes, for these kind of jobs, we expect Work Keys scores at this level.' And the students would march in with their scores and say, 'Here we are,'" said Vic Larson, the coordinator of vocational education for the Omaha public schools.
That hasn't happened, Mr. Larson said, in large part because the unemployment rate in Omaha is a minuscule 1.6 percent,and businesses thus aren't in dire need of a screening tool.