College & Workforce Readiness

Wash. State Districts Issue Grades For ‘Employability’

By John Gehring — January 17, 2001 4 min read
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To address employers’ concerns that high school graduates were not prepared for the demands of the workplace, teachers in the Kent school district in Washington state have begun giving students grades for “employability.”

Along with the usual marks in mathematics, science, and other academic subjects, students now receive a second grade for each course that takes into account their work habits, commitment to quality, attendance and punctuality, and communications and interpersonal skills.

While the grades—first given districtwide last month—are not factored into students’ overall grade point averages, those who score well on the measurements earn a “hire me first” card they can present to employers during job interviews.

The 26,000-student district about 25 miles southeast of Seattle tested the “employability grades” at a single high school last school year. But the district, the state’s fourth largest, this year expanded it to all four high schools.

“When I see the ‘hire me first’ card, it tells me I am not going to have to worry about getting a kid who is supposed to be here at 9 o’clock and shows up at 10 o’clock,” said Debbie Ranniger, who owns Ranniger’s Nursery in Kent and chairs the education committee of the local chamber of commerce.

“It really is a valuable tool,” Ms. Ranniger said. “The type of skills the card measures are even more important for me as an employer than [students’] overall grade point average. I can train them in what they need to learn.”

Rude Awakening

The district started taking a serious look at what Kent graduates were bringing into the workplace in 1997, after a survey of area employers found that even students who did well academically were not prepared for the demands of the workplace, particularly when it came to working with others, showing up on time, and working hard.

Kent school officials said that they modeled their program after a similar initiative by the neighboring Enumclaw district, which started issuing employability grades to students in 1997.

“Our high school students told us high school was too lenient, and when they went to work, it was a rude awakening,” said Sandy Schwartz, the director of technical and applied programs for the Kent district. “We are trying to make them wake up when they are in high school, and trying to align high school with the world of work.”

Anthony Zeiss, who has conducted extensive research on workforce-development and workplace issues, said he had never before heard of such a program, but believes it to be a good idea. He said that academic success is not the most important, or even one of the top requirements, for strong job performance.

“If students graduate with academic but no social skills or work ethic, they are handicapped,” said Mr. Zeiss, the president of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. Several of his surveys show that employers, more than anything else, look for applicants with positive attitudes and effective communications skills.

Assessing high students on skills such as their work ethic and ability to work effectively in groups, Mr. Zeiss said, goes a long way toward bridging the divide between school and work.

“It recognizes the practical demands of what a student should be learning,” he said. “Academic achievement is only one piece of the whole puzzle.”

How It Works

In the Kent school district, students rate themselves on employability measures before meeting individually with each of their teachers, each of whom issue them a final grade. Teachers have the final say on what the employability grade will be.

In the 5,130-student Enumclaw district, the idea for an employability grade, which amounts to 20 percent of students’ quarter grade in each subject, began when vocational education teachers started talking about how they could do a better job incorporating workplace skills in the curriculum.

The program later expanded from a single vocational class to the entire school, said Joe Kristof, an assistant principal Enumclaw Senior High School and the director of its career and technology department.

The grades incorporate five traits: commitment to quality, work habits, communications, interpersonal skills, and attendance and punctuality.

“We believe these five traits are more than just employability skills—they apply to all facets of life,” Mr. Kristof said. “You will be more successful if you apply these things, whether you are enrolled at Stanford University or an apprenticeship program or even in a committed relationship.”

The concept has even been folded into the Enumclaw district’s discipline policy.

First-time offenders once were relegated to picking up trash to teach them a lesson. But now, if a student vandalized school equipment, for example, he or she likely would be asked to go interview a local businessperson to find out what happens to employees who damage or destroy such property, and then to write a report on the findings.

“Can I say everyone is enthralled by this? No. Is it the total solution to all our ills? No,” Mr. Kristof said. “But I would say many of our people have seen benefits from this, and that it is one of the tools in our tool box that can help make a difference.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Wash. State Districts Issue Grades For ‘Employability’

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