College & Workforce Readiness

Skills for Work, College Readiness Are Found Comparable

By Lynn Olson — May 08, 2006 5 min read
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The reading and math skills needed for success in the workplace are comparable to those needed for success in the first year of college, a study set for release this week shows.

Conducted by ACT Inc., the study provides some of the first empirical evidence for those contending that the skills needed for work and postsecondary education are converging because of changes in an increasingly global, high-tech economy.

It comes as policymakers and business leaders are pushing the nation’s schools to step up their graduates’ preparation for employment and further study. (“Economic Trends Fuel Push to Retool Schooling,” March 22, 2006.)

“Ready for College and Ready for Work: Same or Different?” is available from ACT.

To arrive at its findings, the Iowa City, Iowa-based nonprofit test-maker compared the scores of more than 476,000 Illinois high school juniors who took two of its exams from 2001 to 2004: the ACT college-admissions test and WorkKeys, an assessment that measures employability skills in nine areas, from applied mathematics to teamwork. Eleventh graders in Illinois take both tests as part of the state’s assessment program.

In earlier studies, the ACT determined that students needed to score at least

21 out of 36 points on the reading portion of the admissions test, and 22 out of 36 on the math portion, to have at least a 50 percent chance of earning a B in first-year college courses. (“Students Ill-Prepared for College, ACT Warns,” Oct. 20, 2004.)

For the current study, which was scheduled for release in Washington on May 8, the ACT researchers were interested in seeing how those scores compared to the scores needed on the WorkKeys test to be deemed able to succeed in a group of certain desirable entry-level occupations. Those jobs pay enough to support a family of four and offer the potential for career advancement, but do not require a four-year college degree.

Empirical Evidence

To identify those jobs, the researchers used the Occupational Information Network, or O*NET, a comprehensive national database developed for the U.S. Department of Labor. The database classifies jobs into five areas, or “zones,” based on their requirements for education, training, and experience.

Comparable Skills

The math skills needed for work and college readiness show commonalities.

ACT Mathematics: 20-23 Range (college)

[Solve routine two-step or three-step arithmetic problems involving concepts such as rate and proportion, tax added, percentage off, and computing with a given average]

The Sunrise Preschool held its annual book fair for 3 days. The total profit for the 3 days was $2,525. The profit, in dollars, is shown for each of the 3 days in the bar graph below.

Approximately what percent of the book fair’s profit over the 3 days did the preschool make on Day 1?

Sample ACT mathematics question chart

A. 25% | B. 33% | C. 50% | D. 60%

WorkKeys Applied Mathematics Level 5 (work)

[Calculate percentages, percentage discounts, or percentage markups]

As a dietitian, you help clients manage their sugar intake. A popular fruit drink contains a total of 28 grams of carbohydrates. Of that total, 19 grams are sugar. About what percent of the total carbohydrates is the sugar?

A. 7% | B. 9% | C. 15% | D. 68%


The researchers focused on occupations in Zone 3, which includes jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree, but that typically require some combination of vocational training and on-the-job experience, or an associate’s degree. Examples include electricians, construction workers, plumbers, and upholsterers.

“We are essentially defining workforce readiness as workforce-training readiness,” the report notes, “since Zone 3 jobs require high school graduates to have the foundational skills necessary to learn additional, job-specific skills throughout their careers.”

Using profiles developed for the WorkKeys program that specify the job skills and skill levels needed for 120 Zone 3 occupations, as well as the O*NET database and experts’ ratings, the researchers developed a profile of the reading and math skills required for students to be ready to enter the vast majority—90 percent—of the Zone 3 jobs after high school.

That equated to a level 5 on each of two WorkKeys subtests—Reading for Information and Applied Mathematics—out of a possible 7.

The researchers then statistically aligned the scores Illinois juniors earned on those two WorkKeys subtests to the scores earned on the ACT reading and math exams. They found that a level 5 on the WorkKeys subtests essentially was comparable to the college-readiness benchmarks on the ACT.

According to Cynthia B. Schmeiser, the senior vice president of research and development for the ACT, the study provides some of the first solid support for the contention that the expectations for college readiness and workforce readiness are similar.

“Anecdotally, we hear from businesses that they need high school graduates, whether they go to workforce training or college, to be well skilled and have a solid foundation,” she said. “This is the first empirical study that has been done that actually uses data to look at that issue.”

The findings also echo those from work conducted by the American Diploma Project, a multistate initiative that aims to better prepare high school students for college and careers. The diploma project found that employees need relatively high levels of math and English skills to succeed in decent-paying jobs with opportunities for growth, and that those skills are increasingly indistinguishable from the academics needed for college success.

A Common Core

Based on the results, the ACT recommends that all high school students should experience a common academic core that prepares them for both college and workforce training, regardless of their future plans.

“We need to take a very hard look at what our requirements are for all students,” Ms. Schmeiser said. “A solid core preparatory curriculum for all kids appears to be the right way to go.”

The ACT traditionally has defined that as four years of English, three years of math at least through Algebra 2, three years of social studies, and three years of science. Ms. Schmeiser said while the context within which students learn those skills and the way they are assessed may differ, the level of expectations should be the same.

She said the report has generated a lot of interest from governors and other state policymakers who are reconsidering their high school graduation requirements.

Arthur J. Rothkopf, a senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, called the study’s findings “right on target.”

“It’s very consistent with what we have concluded here without all the empirical data,” he said, based on the membership organization’s connections with 2,000 chambers of commerce around the country, representing tens of thousands of businesses. “Increasingly, we have been hearing that even those youngsters who finish high school,” he said, “really need remediation when they go into training.”

“If you want a real job, even a blue-collar job,” Mr. Rothkopf argued, “you’re probably going to need some postsecondary education, but at the very least, you’ve got to get those skills in high school.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of Education Week as Skills for Work, College Readiness Are Found Comparable


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