Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Should Schools Test the ‘Career’ Half of ‘College and Career’?

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 24, 2017 7 min read
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As states move to adopt college- and career-ready accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act, many educators and researchers argue that assessments will not be able to adequately measure the “career” part of that equation.

“Over the years, we’ve built tests that measure better and better whether a student will be able to get at least a C in their first year of college—but they explain almost nothing about whether a student will succeed in an occupation,” said Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Career assessments typically focus on the occupations that provide high enough wages to support a family and require some postsecondary training, though usually not a bachelor’s degree. But Carnevale and other researchers have found that the material on career-readiness tests, like the U.S. military’s Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, and the civilian WorkKeys run by ACT Inc., still overlap significantly with the academic content of college-readiness tests like the ACT or SAT, which focus on early-college content, rather than content geared toward the workplace.

Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly dubbed “the nation’s report card,” was not found to be particularly aligned to the types of reading and math skills needed on the job in eight major job clusters, such as health care.

“The whole impetus by states and the feds, and all of the discussion, has been around college readiness and what skills were needed for that,” said Wayne Camara, the senior vice president of research at ACT.

“College- and career-readiness is used almost interchangeably to cover everyone, but there is a paucity of evidence that those assessments bear any relation to careers, and they’re at a level of abstraction that means there’s often very little utility” in using the results to gauge a student’s likelihood of success in the workplace, as opposed to the academic field, Camara said.

Some countries, such as Switzerland, integrate their career and academic training more throughout the elementary and secondary grades and have more integrated assessment of different skills, too, according to Robert Schwartz, a professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied international career-education systems. In the United States, he said, “we still think of assessments as academic—kids’ ability to tell you what they have learned, rather than reflect what they have learned by doing.”

By contrast, the Swiss system includes career-skills testing in regular classrooms, skill-focused industry centers, and required job internships.

“Generally, there is much more focus on assessing the underlying critical-thinking and problem-solving skills,” Schwartz said. “They focus on deep, transferable skills, because students switch tracks regularly.”

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a few states are starting to incorporate more accountability for career-related skills, but David Conley, the director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon, said the current crop of career tests do not focus enough on those underlying skills. “The career space is completely different from the college space, and people haven’t really come to grips” with how to test it, he said.

The ASVAB and WorkKeys have each been used for decades with students and adult job seekers, but in the past five years both tests have updated their assessments and ramped up testing among high school students in efforts to match evolving occupations—particularly in the technology sector—and meet the needs of states interested in “college and career readiness.”

Evolving Assessments

Four states require and fully pay for all students to take WorkKeys: Alabama, Michigan, South Carolina, and Wisconsin. Another nine pay for the test for specific groups of students, such as those in career-tech courses, or they allow districts or students to choose between it or another test. The test has grown from about 700,000 participants a year in 2000 to more than 2 million a year today.

The ASVAB has been required for all students entering the military since 1976, but it also is given to high schoolers across states and is an option for high school graduation in states including Colorado, Kentucky, Mississippi, Minnesota, New Mexico, and New Jersey. It, too, has seen growth recently, with 600,000 to 700,000 total test-takers each year for the past five years.

While both tests gauge basic math and reading skills, the ASVAB also gauges students’ electronics, automotive, and mechanical understanding, as well as their ability to assemble objects. WorkKeys recently added measures of “graphical literacy"—being able to draw information from charts and data—and updated about 1,000 occupations it uses to determine skill levels.

“Probably the biggest challenge is going to be to keep up with how jobs change. College hasn’t changed that dramatically in the last 40 years, particularly for students who attend brick-and-mortar schools. But jobs have changed dramatically, ... and the workplace now demands continuous improvement of skills,” ACT’s Camara said. “We can only hope to measure a small portion; we can never measure all of the behaviors and values required by a particular company.”

Bringing in Business

Michigan is one of a handful of states trying to incorporate career-readiness assessments more directly into its accountability system. All students in that state must create an education development plan in 7th grade, including career interests and long-term goals, and update it every year to prompt discussions of what skills and experience students will need to acquire the job they want.

Before graduating, all high school students must take WorkKeys in addition to the College Board’s SAT and Michigan’s own science and social studies tests; participation is part of schools’ required accountability reporting, but the actual scores are not.

"[WorkKeys] provides a balance to the SAT, which is really driven by four-year university admissions,” said Brandy Johnson, the executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit advocacy group. “It is symbolically really powerful for the state to say we want students to be college ready, ... but we also know there are other types of skills that are extremely important in both college and workplace settings that we want to acknowledge.”

The nonprofit Talent 2025 is a coalition of 13 school districts, businesses, and community groups in western Michigan that is trying to connect school assessments to industry needs. For example, in the past two years, the group has increased from 50 to 250 the number of employers who ask for career-assessment scores like WorkKeys on job applications.

“We’re working to promote the [career] test and certificates as another piece of information employers use to assess a candidate for a job, just as you would review education or related job experiences,” said Kevin Stotts, the president of Talent 2025. “Everyone understands the value of an ACT or SAT score, but we haven’t really done a good job of explaining the value of a career assessment.”

Next-Generation Career Tests?

Debates around the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act—overdue since 2006—have included proposals to use state longitudinal student databases to track career outcomes, such as whether a student ends up working in the field for which he or she studied. If accepted in the next version of the federal law, the measures could help researchers devise better indicators of career readiness.

Some of Talent 2025’s districts are developing digital transcripts that allow students to include scores from an array of tests—the SAT and the International Baccalaureate as well as WorkKeys or industry-certificate exams—with other indicators that employers have considered useful, such as extracurricular activities and experiences with team projects or problem-solving.

Stephen Watson, the director of Navy selection and classification, who helped develop the ASVAB, said he expects the next generation of career assessments to include more of those “other indicators” that can point to a student’s motivation and problem-solving approach to work.

The armed forces have already been exploring better ways to measure students’ interests in certain fields. They’re also experimenting with simulations designed to test how students would approach specific experiences at work, such as teaming up with colleagues or tackling a crisis. “We have to predict what matters,” Watson said, “and what matters is how successful people feel in their jobs, how successful they are in their jobs, and how long they stick around.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2017 edition of Education Week as Testing the ‘Career’ Half of ‘College and Career’


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