Think carefully before ditching WorkKeys

Getty Images/Peter Muller

In early June, State Superintendent DeMaria shared with the state school board his recommendations for streamlining Ohio’s student testing regimen. Among the list of proposed cuts is the WorkKeys assessment, a job skills test that measures how well prepared students are for the workforce. Though other proposed cuts received more attention (and have since been finalized), the proposed elimination of WorkKeys has largely been ignored—perhaps because many Ohio policymakers aren’t sure what it is or even who takes it. Let’s take a look.

What is the WorkKeys assessment?

WorkKeys is an ACT-designed system that includes assessments, curriculum, and “skill profiles” for schools to use in building and measuring students’ workplace skills. Superintendent DeMaria specifically recommends the elimination of the assessment, of which there are three sections:

  1. Applied math: a 55-minute assessment with 34 items. This test measures mathematical critical thinking and problem-solving techniques that are commonly used in the workplace, including negative numbers, fractions, decimals, and money and time conversions.
  2. Graphic literacy: a 55-minute assessment with 38 items. This test measures how well an individual can read and interpret common workplace graphics such as diagrams, maps and floor plans, order forms, and flow charts.
  3. Workplace documents: a 55-minute assessment with 33 items. This test measures an individual’s ability to understand and use common workplace documents such as emails, policies, websites, contracts, and regulations.

Who takes the assessment?

Only students interested in pursuing Ohio’s workforce readiness graduation pathway must take this assessment. Ohio currently offers its students three graduation pathways[1] to choose among, and the workforce readiness option requires students to earn both an industry-recognized credential in a single career field and a workforce readiness score on the WorkKeys assessment.[2] Students who opt for this pathway must still take the seven end-of-course exams required by state law—a form of “double-testing” that may be the root of the Superintendent’s elimination recommendation. The state of Ohio pays for students to take the WorkKeys assessment one time

Are there benefits to keeping it?

Superintendent DeMaria’s recommendation to eliminate WorkKeys appears to be a reaction to recent pushback against the amount of time students spend taking assessments as well as the number of tests they take. But given that WorkKeys isn’t actually required for Ohio students, it’s nearly impossible to argue that eliminating it will significantly cut testing time. Eliminating or reducing other tests that affect a broader range of students may be a better option. Furthermore, eliminating WorkKeys would necessitate a law change that either eliminates or reduces the rigor of the workforce readiness graduation pathway. There are also a few additional reasons why Ohio may want to avoid scrapping this assessment:

  1. It’s the only assessment Ohio currently has to gauge career readiness.

    Ohio’s current academic standards are aimed at preparing students for success in college and career. Let’s face it, though; almost all of the attention is paid to college readiness; the career aspect is often overlooked. Ohio isn’t the only state that struggles to effectively measure the career readiness of all its students, but eliminating WorkKeys would be a damaging step backwards—it would leave the state without a single measure for judging progress on career readiness. Contrary to popular opinion, ignorance isn’t bliss—too many Ohio students aren’t prepared for the workforce, and eliminating our only indicator of readiness isn’t going to change that.
     
  2. WorkKeys is the basis for a nationally recognized workforce readiness credential.

    When Ohio students take and pass WorkKeys (along with other requirements), they are granted a high school diploma. But successful passage of the assessment garners an additional benefit—the National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC). This certificate is a credential that verifies work skills and job readiness to employers in a wide variety of industries and occupations. To earn an NCRC, students need to achieve a minimum score of 3 out of 7 possible points on all three sections of the exam. For high-achieving students, the different levels of performance (aptly named bronze, silver, gold, and platinum) offer a meaningful opportunity to stand out even further from their peers. 

    Ohio already requires career-pathway graduates to earn an industry-specific credential (such as becoming a certified welder). But the NCRC applies to multiple industries—meaning that students who opt to transition to a different industry can still utilize their certification. Ohio community colleges are working to help their students earn an NCRC, so high school graduates who get to campus with the credential in hand could be ahead of their peers in terms of completing degree requirements. A total of 320 Ohio businesses support NCRC, so high school graduates with the credential are likely more attractive to employers than those who don’t have it. And an ACT case study claims that earning the NCRC in addition to other credentials helped displaced Ohio workers find higher-paying jobs faster.

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WorkKeys is an under-the-radar assessment to be sure, but it’s also an important one—the only one we currently have that aims to gauge career readiness skills. Eliminating such a test communicates that the state only values the college half of its college and career readiness goal, and that any value that students gain from passing the test, such as a nationally recognized credential that can apply to multiple industries, isn’t prized enough to protect. That’s a bad message to send to students headed straight into the workplace and an illogical one for a state that needs a more prepared workforce.


[1] This refers to the graduation pathways permanently included in Ohio law and not the alternative measure that was recently adopted for the class of 2018.

[2] On June 1, ACT released a new version of the WorkKeys assessment. The State Board already plans to make the necessary modifications to align Ohio’s requirements with these changes, including score scale adjustments.

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.