By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — High school juniors would no longer have to take the ACT WorkKeys career readiness test under a bill with broad legislative backing — a move touted by educators as a way to save time, money and student stress.
But some business leaders say eliminating the test would make it harder to find qualified job candidates.
The bipartisan bill is sponsored by Rep. John Reilly, R-Oakland Township, and co-sponsors include Reps. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, Padma Kuppa, D-Troy, and Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain. Reilly introduced a similar bill in the last legislative session, but it died in the House Education Reform Committee.
The Michigan Merit Examination required of juniors involves three tests: WorkKeys, the SAT and the M-STEP science and social studies assessment. The WorkKeys test assesses applied math, graphic literacy and workplace documents skills.
Questions on the WorkKeys exam are presented in a unique manner, applying academic skills to realistic workplace scenarios, according to William DiSessa, a communications officer with the Department of Education.
But there’s a lot of overlap in subject matter between the WorkKeys and the other mandated exams, said Bob Kefgen, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.
“Questions on WorkKeys are asked from a workplace standpoint, but just because you’re asking it and framing it in a particular way doesn’t mean it’s any more informative,” Kefgen said. “If you’re testing English skills, you’re testing English skills.”
Removing the WorkKeys requirement would reduce students’ stress and allow them to focus on preparing for the SAT, which “has more meaning for them” as a college entrance exam, Kefgen said.
Only four states — Michigan, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Alabama — fully fund the tests, according to the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education. Michigan signed a one-year, $4.4 million contract extension with the ACT to administer the test for the 2018-19 school year.
But Kefgen said the test isn’t worth the money or the time it takes to administer. Because of proctoring requirements like low student-to-teacher ratios and spacing between desks, schools keep non-testing kids at home because there aren’t enough available teachers or space to handle them.
“When you do that, you’re not just sacrificing instructional time, you’re sacrificing an entire instructional day for every student in the entire building,” Kefgen said.
Members of the principals’ association with a focus on career and technical education find some use in WorkKeys results, but even then, they aren’t used in isolation, Kefgen said. The state-mandated WorkKeys test is essentially a final exam, while career education programs often administer multiple interim exams beforehand to track students’ progress.
That’s one of the biggest problems with the final WorkKeys exam, Kefgen said — it comes too late in students’ academic careers to really help them if they score poorly.
“Educators don’t use these data to inform instruction or remediate students; they aren’t using them really in any way,” Kefgen said. “They couldn’t even use them if they wanted to because this test is given in spring of junior year. By the time they take WorkKeys, there’s only a year left to remediate them and get them up to scratch.”
Students who pass all three sections of the exam earn a WorkKeys National Career Readiness Certificate, and depending on their achievement can receive four levels of certification: Bronze, silver, gold and platinum.
“Few, if any” businesses statewide use the certificate in their employment decisions, Kefgen said.
But Delaney McKinley, the senior director of government affairs for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said the multi-leveled career readiness certificate helps employers streamline their hiring process.
If someone achieves a bronze certificate and an employer is looking to hire someone with the skills equivalent to a silver certification, for example, she said the employer can know to either supply extra training for that candidate or keep searching for another one.
McKinley said the conversation around WorkKeys has largely focused on the resources required to administer it, while little has been made of the benefit the certificates provide to students looking for post-secondary opportunities other than higher education.
“Both sides of the Legislature have said they want to focus on skilled trades,” she said. “It’s inconsistent to take away an asset for students who are not necessarily college bound.”
McKinley pushed back on the idea that employers don’t use WorkKeys results, saying about 250 businesses — largely concentrated in West Michigan — make employment decisions based on the career readiness credential.
She named the Grand Rapids area as particularly reliant on WorkKeys test results, as “a great collaboration” between West Michigan Works!, Grand Rapids Community College and local employers has led to a greater adoption of the assessment in that region.
McKinley said there is room for growth in employer recognition of the WorkKeys certificates elsewhere in Michigan, but urged legislators not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” just because it was underused.
“When our members are calling us saying we can’t get the talent for these positions, (WorkKeys) is a tool in the toolbox,” McKinley said. “That’s why we see it as useful; it is the only indication of employability that we are getting from the K-12 system.”