Another Payoff From Hitting the Books : Education: Businesses seek a standardized test that would tie job prospects to academic performance.


Hundreds of American companies, hoping to weed out under-qualified job candidates, plan to create a standardized test for high school graduates that would measure an array of basic skills and academic achievement.

In what would be businesses' broadest initiative yet to address problems within the nation's education system, the idea is to establish a national computerized data bank that would include information--not only academic but also occupational and personal skills--about students.

Although the tests would be voluntary, business hopes students would be motivated to take them because of the prospect of obtaining better and higher-paying jobs from companies that subscribe to the system. For business, the payoff would be better identification of qualified workers who would need less training once on the job, particularly in basic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic.

The plan is being backed by the American Business Conference, a group of entrepreneurial mid-sized companies, and by the National Alliance of Business, which builds partnerships between the public and private sectors. The idea has grown out of the belief that both the quality of America's schools and students would improve if companies cared enough to reward individual academic achievement.

"It's a great opportunity for business to make a direct impact and to signal to young people that there are benefits to doing well and penalties for not doing well in school," said Roger W. Johnson, chief executive of Western Digital Corp. in Irvine. "We never sent that signal before except to college-level people."

Most corporate involvement in the nation's schools has been funding education programs, creating some 140,800 partnerships with schools, tutoring, "adopting" students and even starting schools.

The proposal is being considered at a time when sentiment is growing among policy-makers that goals should be set regarding the performance of American students on various achievement tests. Recently, the Labor Department announced a commission to develop "national competence guidelines" that would be used in school curricula and training programs.

As now envisioned, the plan business is considering might include a battery of assessments that cover the entire high school curriculum from math and management practice to "document literacy"--determining whether a student can read bar graphs and bus schedules. In some occupational areas, students might be asked to demonstrate that they can repair a car or cut someone's hair. Tests would be given at various levels of difficulty, and they could be retaken and updated throughout a person's working life.

Though there is growing support for setting standards and testing achievement, there is concern about how educators and students would react to yet another achievement test.

Educators are likely to question how valid the test is and how employers would interpret the data. At a recent all-day conference on identifying skills for entry-level jobs sponsored by the Hudson Institute, the overriding concern was that any test be used to assess skills "and not to keep people out," said Arnold Packer, a senior research fellow at the institute. The real litmus test, of course, is if students are willing take such an assessment program seriously.

Jayton Gant, a senior at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Va., said: "I would do something like that for higher pay, but I don't think it's better for some people."

Gant, whose high school curriculum includes courses in masonry at the Arlington Career Center, said he would prefer showing potential employers samples of his work, rather than taking tests.

Recently, representatives from the ABC and the NAB have been meeting with other business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Assn. of Manufacturers and others to brief them on the idea and enlist their support.

"It is essential to have the major business groups on board," said Barry Rogstead, president of the ABC. "You can't do this with 10% of the business community and 10% of the schools."

Educators will not be approached until a "critical mass" is reached in the business community, said Esther F. Schaeffer, senior vice president of the National Alliance of Business.

Experts in standardized testing said if there were enough support for the idea, the program could be tested in several cities by the fall of 1991.

The Educational Testing Service, a standardized testing service, already is developing assessment programs and a means of communicating results to employers in a system called "Worklink."

"This is kind of a stair-step standard," said George Elford, director of the Educational Testing Service office in Washington, who has been working on the project. "It's not a minimum standard that you pass and forget about."

The idea of tying achievement in school to a better job partly had its genesis with John Bishop, an economist who is an associate professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

In exploring why American students compared poorly to their overseas counterparts, Bishop concluded that achievement in subjects such as math, science and English had a big effect on job performance in some fields, but for the first eight years after high school, it had no effect on the earnings of young men, hence, the idea of tying achievement directly to the job.

But even if students cared more about achieving in school, employers currently pay little attention to the transcripts of work-bound high school students and usually focus only on whether an applicant has a diploma.

"There is no incentive for a kid to get straight As because they lay their diploma down and it's not even checked," said Jewell Gould, research director of the American Federation of Teachers. "If we can help employers see what is in a diploma . . . then there is the possibility they will understand what this person brings with them."

Also, because many employers adopt the attitude that all high school students are the same--under-qualified, unmotivated and unresponsive--they tend to give the better jobs to workers who have a track record in the work force--a further discouragement to work-bound high school students.

But Ray Stata, president of Analog Devices Inc., a manufacturer of semiconductor components in Norwood, Mass., said he would be willing to pay youngsters who could prove their capabilities.

"If students had reading and quantitative skills and we knew it, we would be willing to pay them for it," Stata said. "Paying them a differential upon entry puts teeth into encouraging achievement."

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