A Worrisome Work Force

By Robert Rothman — January 01, 1990 4 min read

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

The American Business Conference, which represents chief executive officers of medium-sized companies, is backing the plan, as is 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 data bank that employers could use to evaluate potential employees.

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

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.

“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,”’ says Barry Rogstead, president of the American Business Conference. “He may begin to change his behavior a bit.”

Officials from the two business groups claim that the business leaders and educators 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.

“The last thing in the world schools need is one more test,” says Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. “There is ample evidence of the extent to which kids can do math and read.”

In addition, suggests Theodore 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 says, would do better to emulate the RJR Nabisco Foundation, which announced last November that it will provide $30 million in grants to help schools take risks to create “new learning environments.”

Officials from Nabisco, Sizer notes, realize that the “the system is flawed, and it’s got to change.”

“We need more corporations to think that way and accept the complexity of the problem,” he says.

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 fall, for example, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole said she would create a commission of business, education, and labor leaders to define the skills that business needs to stay competitive in the world marketplace and that workers need to cope with new technologies. “Simply put, America’s work force is in a state of unreadiness,” Dole said.

The proposed system, which is known as Worklink, is aimed at giving businesses detailed information about potential employees in a readily accessible form. 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.

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

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

Elford adds that students would be evaluated by 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 says.

Although the system would be voluntary, it could be effective, most agree, only if students participated and businesses used the information.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as A Worrisome Work Force