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College & Workforce Readiness

Aptitude Tests Steer Students to Careers. Does That Narrow Their Options?

By Alyson Klein — February 04, 2020 | Corrected: February 05, 2020 7 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Dr. Leigh Anne Taylor Knight.

How good are you at collecting and managing information? How much do you think you’d enjoy a job where you teach an exercise routine, or raise fish in a hatchery? Can you complete this exercise that asks you to recognize patterns in groups of numbers? Now, try this one, which asks you to figure out which in a series of pictures go together.

These questions or tasks might sound like the sort of things you’d be asked to address or do as part of a job interview, not as a middle or high school student. But that’s part of the point behind a proliferating breed of career-interest inventories, self-assessments, and aptitude tests that school districts are using to help steer students to a future vocation.

More than 17,000 schools use YouScience, a commercial aptitude assessment that seeks to gauge a test taker’s skill in areas like idea generation and spatial awareness. The DeBruce Foundation has created Agile Work Profiler, a free interest inventory used primarily by districts in the Kansas City, Mo., area. And many states—including Ohio and Nebraska— offer free, online versions of the assessments.

Recently, Tennessee passed a law requiring districts to provide middle schoolers and 9th graders with free interest inventories, such as the Kuder assessment, the Myers-Briggs personality test, and the College Board Career Finder. The results can be used to inform the student’s study plan for high school, an approach championed by many educators, but questioned by others, who worry it could be used to track students into specific careers too early in their lives.

It’s hard to pinpoint just how many districts or schools are using self-assessments or skills inventories to help give students career guidance, experts say. But Emily Passias, the director of the Education Strategy Group, a consulting organization that works with states and districts on career and technical education policies, said that, anecdotally, she’s noticed an uptick lately.

As schools focus on preparing students for the workforce, “districts are certainly looking for ways to help students figure out what they are interested in,” she said. “There’s a booming business around providing these types of services.”

Many educators are fans of the tools, including Susan Browning, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for the Paulding school district in suburban Atlanta, which has used YouScience for at least five years.

Paulding students take a shortened version of the test in 7th grade to help decide which of 17 career pathways offered by the district to pursue, including health care, culinary arts, computer science, and business and finance. (Students are permitted to switch pathways during their high school career.) They take an expanded version in 10th grade, as they begin to research postsecondary options.

The assessment had a profound impact on one student, Browning recalled, who came from a family of police officers and always assumed that she would pursue a career as a cop. YouScience, however, told her she had a great aptitude for engineering. She got excited about that alternative career path, began taking advanced math courses that she previously hadn’t considered, then went on to study engineering in college.

“It changed her entire trajectory because she never thought of herself” that way, Browning recalled. She said students take the assessment and realize, “I now know that I can be good at something that I thought I wasn’t good at before.”

But Passias cautioned that the assessments should never substitute for a more comprehensive, deep approach to career exploration and counseling.

They should be just “one tool in the toolbox. They are not a replacement for work-based learning” and other, more hands-on opportunities that help students figure out whether they are suited to a particular career path, she said. Experiences like internships or job-shadowing will “help students see what the world actually looks like, rather than just taking a quiz.”

Kyle Hartung, the associate vice president of Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that concentrates on education and workforce alignment, agreed.

Schools need to give students exposure to work-based learning opportunities, he said, rather than just allowing the “ill-formed mind at 13 [to say], I want to be x and all of a sudden you just push them into that without having a chance to test out different” possibilities, Hartung said.

How You Think

For instance, some students, Hartung said, may think they want to work in health care until they do a micro-internship at a hospital and learn what it’s really like to draw blood or do other tasks. YouScience, the program that the Paulding district uses, asks test takers to perform a series of tasks to determine their aptitude in areas like spatial visualization, idea generation, work approach, vocabulary, and inductive reasoning. Test takers might look at long pairs of numbers and mark those that are alike and those that are different.

After completing the assessment, students have increased confidence in their ability to make career decisions, according to post- and pre-test data, said Armando Garza, the senior vice-president for-sales and marketing at YouScience, a for-profit company.

The test doesn’t ask academic questions like the SAT or ACT does, Garza said.

“It’s really around how do you think,” he explained. He thinks YouScience has a leg up on other types of career assessments that rely primarily on a students’ own evaluation of their skills. “We are actually using performance-based metrics, psychometrically assessing your true ability.”

That’s because students might not have a good sense of what their strengths and weaknesses are.

“At 16, I thought I could do anything,” Garza said.

Having an objective gauge of students’ skills is a huge plus for Jennie LaMothe, who works as the director of school-based services for NaviGo College and Career Prep Services, a division of the Learning Grove, a nonprofit in Covington, Ky., that offers career-counseling services to nearby school districts.

Some of the kids who take YouScience “aren’t high-performing academic students,” she said. “They take this and they’re like, I’m awesome at XYZ.”

More Than ‘Chocolate and Vanilla’

Another option that aims to help give students some career direction: the Agile Work Profiler, which was created in 2018 by the DeBruce Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo.-based organization that concentrates on workforce-readiness issues.

The tool measures test takers’ skill in 10 areas based on their own perceptions of their abilities, including developing others, innovating, inspecting, judging and estimating, managing, operating objects, organizing, selling and communicating, serving and caring, and working with information. Students are then given the chance to explore potential careers that are in demand and match their skills and interests.

The list is wide and varied. And that’s by design, said Leigh Anne Taylor Knight, the executive director and chief operating officer of the foundation.

Most young people think of the careers that they’ve had broad exposure to—doctor, teacher, construction worker. They’re less likely to think of in-demand jobs like telecommunications repairer and mechanical engineer, as well as outside-the-box occupations like locksmith or landscape architect.

“Kids are thinking about careers in vanilla and chocolate terms,” Taylor Knight said. “Opening this up is all about expanding those pathways and helping them see more options that are available in those careers.”

55 percent of educators say employers’ evaluations of recent high school graduates’ academic skills are a “necessary evil.”

Source: EdWeek Research Center survey, 2019

Cindy Schluckebier, a high school teacher in Independence, Mo., whose class consists of helping students from three different high schools run a “spirit wear” store, gave the assessment to her students. The students’ “agilities” helped determine their roles in the store—whether they would concentrate primarily on design, managing, finance, marketing, or another aspect of the business.

“It kind of guides them so that we have that strong organizational structure from the beginning,” Shluckebier said.

But she added that she thinks students’ strengths may shift over time. A student’s “agilities” at age 16 may be different by age 18. “The thing is, we’re human beings. And they are teenagers, for crying out loud,” Shluckebier said.

Experts caution the approach has its limits. Assessments that rely primarily on students’ assessment of their own skills may be of minimal help to students who don’t have a clear idea of their own strengths and weaknesses, Passias said.

“I think those types of tools really rely on students having a well-developed understanding of what they are good at, what their qualities are,” she said.

She would also like to see some evidence that these inventories or assessments improve students’ decision making.

“I’ll be interested to see if, after these types of products have been in use for years whether they are connecting students to careers they wouldn’t have been interested in themselves,” she said.

Her own son, she said, recently took an assessment that pointed him towards a career as a soccer coach—not really an outside-the-box suggestion for a kid who is passionate about the sport.

Hartung agreed that the assessments aren’t sufficient on their own. They are just, “one small star in a constellation of things we need to do to help people understand who they are going to be in their working life.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2020 edition of Education Week as Aptitude Tests Steer Students to Careers


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