Saturday, January 29, 2005

New York Plans Test to Affirm Fitness for Jobs

New York Plans Test to Affirm Fitness for Jobs

Under mounting pressure from business and labor groups, New York is expected to become the first state in the nation to issue a "work readiness" credential to high school students who pass a voluntary test measuring their ability to succeed in entry-level jobs, state officials say.

Employers have complained for years that too many students leave high school without such basic skills, despite the battery of exams - considered among the most stringent in the nation - that New York requires for graduation. The work-readiness credential, employers say, will make hiring decisions easier and cut employee turnover.

The test would cover so-called soft skills in 10 broad areas, including the ability to communicate, follow directions, negotiate and make basic decisions. It will be tried out in pilot programs this spring and could be ready as early as the fall, officials said. The test, given by computer, would include one section on speaking skills, with oral answers to be recorded and then analyzed by examiners.

James C. Dawson, a Regent who represents several upstate counties, said that many details of the proposal had yet to be worked out, but that he had little doubt the Board of Regents, which controls education policy, would endorse some form of the new credential.

"It is going to be an interesting discussion," he said. "But the bottom line is to do something that will help students who are inclined to go into the work force at an early age."

Other states including Florida, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Washington are part of a national plan by the United States Chamber of Commerce to create a work-readiness credential that would be recognized across the states, a project that is supported by the New York State Departments of Education and Labor.

The Board of Regents is expected to take up the proposal next month. State officials say the Regents are likely to adopt the idea because of the state's role in the national initiative, and because the commissioner of education, Richard P. Mills, is a member of a quasi-governmental state group, the Workforce Investment Board, that has been one of the credential's main proponents.

"This is something that business has wanted for a long time," said Harry Phillips, a Regent from Hartsdale, N.Y. "The Regents had an original reaction that maybe it would dilute the diploma. But I hope that we have come around to feel that it is not that, and is something we should support."

Officials still have not determined whether students who do not earn a diploma, either because they fail the Regents exams or do not take them, would be eligible for the work-readiness credential. Some Regents are expected to insist that the credential be tied to the diploma, so it does not become an incentive for dropping out of school.

Critics of the proposed credential question the need for yet another high school assessment in New York, which is already among the most aggressive states in requiring testing. Further, they question whether schools have the time and resources to put in place the new courses required to prepare students for the work-readiness test.

Still others ask a more basic question: How is it that students can graduate from high school without the basic skills necessary for entry-level work?

"If the diploma now provided after a student takes five Regents exams - if that is not enough for a student to be ready for the rigors of life, then one has to question the worth of that assessment," said Assemblyman Steven Sanders, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee. "Here we have the highest-stakes examinations of any state in the country, and the business leaders are saying there's something missing here. That means there's something wrong with this approach. The Regents have a problem here."

Eva S. Moskowitz, the chairwoman of the New York City Council's Education Committee, had similar thoughts.

"I'm glad that the business community has piped up about its needs, and I hope it will continue to be vocal about its expectations for high school graduates," she said. "I don't believe, though, that the credential as I understand it will actually improve students' ability to be successful in the workplace. Kids should be practicing public speaking in social studies, for example. A good education, college preparatory or vocational, would guarantee that students have mastered these skills."

In a report about the proposed credential addressed to the Regents, Commissioner Mills noted that statewide learning standards already included "foundation skills" that were similar to what businesses were calling for. State education officials have also said that the Regents exams already judge foundation skills.

But business leaders have been clear that the current system is not measuring up. "Right now, most work development programs tend to be fragmented," said Margarita Mayo, director of education and training at the Business Council of New York State. "Having people be able to get this credential and pass an assessment that is recognized nationally, that would really help students in having something to present to employers that is valid."

In his report, Mr. Mills did not take a position on the credential. Nonetheless, he told the Regents, "We must redouble our efforts to guarantee to students, parents and the employer community that the diploma means 'ready to work.' "

Daniel E. Richardson, the director of finance and planning at Latta Road Nursing Home, a facility in Rochester, and a member of the Workforce Investment Board, said, "We owe it to ourselves and our society to come up with a metric, much like the Regents did 10 years ago for academic standards."

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