Certification test focuses on readying students for work, not college

January 22, 2014 at 7:00 PM EDT
For American industry, finding employees who have all the requisite skills is a big challenge, and hiring people who don't stack up can cost businesses a great deal of money. Special correspondent John Tulenko from Learning Matters reports on a certification test that aims to boost U.S. students' workforce readiness.


GWEN IFILL: Next: the challenge of getting students ready for the working world.

While most high schools focus on preparing students for college, businesses in one community outside Chicago are rallying around a different approach, preparing students for work.

Special correspondent John Tulenko from Learning Matters has our report.

JOHN TULENKO: From the outside, Hoffer Plastics in Elgin, Illinois, looks about the same as it did when it was founded back in 1953. Inside, it’s a different story.

Bill Hoffer is the CEO.

BILL HOFFER, Hoffer Plastics Corporation: We have got job after job that 20 years ago would be a full-time operator. Now it’s a robot.

JOHN TULENKO: There are fewer workers, but they’re required to do more.

BILL HOFFER: They need to be able to read blueprints. They need to follow procedures, document what they’re doing. And that’s all very important.

JOHN TULENKO: Right now, finding employees who can do all that is a challenge for Hoffer Plastics and for 40 percent of U.S. companies. The result? A revolving door of workers that cost businesses billions.

PAT HAYES, Fabric Images: Why do we keep spending money to solve the same problem over and over and over again?

JOHN TULENKO: Pat Hayes is founder of another local company, Fabric Images, a textile printer. Filling 150 positions here the usual way, relying on diplomas and GPAs, left Hayes frustrated.

PAT HAYES: What does an A mean to an employer today? I got an A in math. What does that mean? Nothing. Where did you go to school? What level of course? Was it accelerated? Was it a college prep course? I don’t know.

JOHN TULENKO: To get a better read on an applicant’s skill level, both Fabric Images and Hoffer Plastics turned to a job-readiness test called WorkKeys.

 PAT HAYES: WorkKeys, it’s an assessment, what you have accomplished in math, in reading and locating for information. Those three characteristics are in about, I don’t know, 98 percent of the jobs at some level.

JOHN TULENKO: More specifically, WorkKeys, developed by ACT, the nonprofit behind the college entrance exam, uses actual workplace scenarios to measure how well individuals can decipher charts, graphs and other visual information, convert ratios, measurements, and make calculations across a variety of situations, and effectively comprehend memos, instructions and other authentic workplace documents.

There are also tests of visual observation and listening comprehension.

PAT HAYES: In our company, we can profile every job that we have based on these core skills. For the first time, I saw a commonality of what an individual had and what I needed, and I could start putting the two things together.

JOHN TULENKO: More than 1,000 companies use WorkKeys. Though it hasn’t been evaluated by independent researches, company testimonials describe sharp declines in employee turnover and training costs.

And businesses may not be the only winners. Recent high school graduate Sarah Rohrsen was accepted at a four-year college, but she found the tuition beyond her reach and decided instead to look for a job.

SARAH ROHRSEN, recent high school graduate: It was kind of a disappointment. The only options really were was fast food or, if you’re lucky, seasonal work.

JOHN TULENKO: Sarah wound up behind the counter at a Wendy’s restaurant and kept looking. Nine months later, she applied for a job at Hoffer Plastics, which requires applicants to take WorkKeys. Sarah’s top-notch scores landed her a well-paying full-time job with benefits as an inspector.

SARAH ROHRSEN: I wasn’t happy working at Wendy’s, and to come in here thanks to WorkKeys and to be able to know each week my paycheck is going to have 80 hours on it, since we’re paid biweekly, it’s pretty awesome.

JOHN TULENKO: Conventional wisdom has held, the answer to closing the skills gap is to send more people to college. But Sarah Rohrsen’s experience points to a different solution: expanding the talent pool to include some 36 million Americans who got into college, but never finished.

PAT HAYES: Are they to be thrown away? Why can’t we understand where they are? Why can’t we get them to some level and utilize them?

JOHN TULENKO: And how does WorkKeys help those folks?

PAT HAYES: It defines where they are. I have something that says, I achieved this level.

JOHN TULENKO: Based on their scores, test takers can earn a work force readiness certificate. In Elgin, more than 100 local businesses have gotten behind the certificate called an NCRC for short, putting signs like this one on their doors.

And the businesses lobbied the schools, so high school students would have a chance to test for the certificate, too.

JOSE TORRES, U-46 School District: The reason that we have WorkKeys is because I listened to the community, to the business community.

JOHN TULENKO: In 2010, local school superintendent Jose Torres made earning NCRC certificates a crucial part of his five-year plan.

JOSE TORRES: Our goal in our district is to have 75 percent of our kids about above a gold, which is almost the highest level.

JOHN TULENKO: So we went to Elgin High School, a predominantly low-income school where administrators say half the students go directly into the work force, to see how they were doing.

Raise your hand if you have heard of something called an NCRC certificate? No hands. OK.

It was like this in virtually every classroom we visited, and this was four years after the district adopted the 75 percent goal.

Where are you today?

JOSE TORRES: We’re at 22 percent.

JOHN TULENKO: Why are so many students missing the mark for work force readiness? It comes down to priorities.

LAURIE NEHF, Elgin High School: I’m not told to have them job-ready. I’m told to have them college-ready.

JOHN TULENKO: Like math teachers everywhere, Laurie Nehf follows a curriculum designed to prepare students for college-level calculus.

LAURIE NEHF: I’m focusing on linear functions, quadratic functions, polynomial functions, higher-level types of questions from WorkKeys.

JOHN TULENKO: WorkKeys doesn’t go there, because it’s math most students are unlikely to use on the job.

Surveys indicate 90 percent of all jobs, including many that pay well, do not require this kind of math. Advanced math is used in most science and technology jobs, but, even with expected growth, they will make up just 5 percent of the nation’s work force.

LAURIE NEHF: Is it important that they know that a negative under a square root creates an imaginary number? No, that’s not really that important.

JOHN TULENKO: The impact that math has on many students is important.

How often is it that teachers will help you see how what you’re learning in class is applicable outside of school?

CURTIS MAJKA, student: I don’t think very often. A lot of school subjects, like, you don’t use, and a lot of people believe that. A lot of people don’t try in math because they don’t think they’re ever going to use it.

JOHN TULENKO: To others, that’s a misunderstanding.

JOSE TORRES: I’m no math expert, but, algebra, what it does, it helps you to think, think critically, think logically. And that is exactly what people need in the workplace. They need to be able to think critically and logically.

JOHN TULENKO: Trouble is, those lessons aren’t getting through. Across the country, 75 percent of 12th-graders scored below proficient in math.

At Elgin High School, it’s not much better. Last year in math, 60 percent of students missed the mark. A number of teachers here told us it’s not uncommon they find students in their classes who have yet to learn the math taught in middle school. Regardless, these students are placed in algebra and geometry.

LAURIE NEHF: They just shut down. They get very frustrated. We won’t accept meeting kids where they’re at and helping them where they’re at.

I would love to spend all my time working on percentages, fractions, all that stuff with number sense. That number sense skills is what matters in the real world.

JOHN TULENKO: But, right now, providing alternatives to the traditional high school math could be risky. Historically, this math has been a gatekeeper. It’s what’s tested on college entrance exams, the SAT and, ironically, the ACT, made by the developers of WorkKeys.

And unless that changes, there’s little incentive for high schools to do more with the kind of math most of us will use on the job.