Columbus High School Principal Craig Chapman tells a story about a particular student who swung by his office to ask, “When are the industries visiting?”
The student, one of the school’s 202 seniors, had taken the WorkKeys exam, a workforce readiness test similar in format to the more academic-oriented ACT, and was now excited to meet representatives from area industries planning to visit the schools.
It’s just one example of students’ excitement around CHS’s push over the last two years to emphasize workforce readiness to the same degree as college readiness, Chapman said.
CMSD implemented the Power of 100, a club for students who make Silver of higher on the WorkKeys, with a goal of having at least 100 students in the club by the end of this school year.
“(We’re) using the Power of 100 to name a group of students who have done well in something,” Chapman said. “Now we have so many students who are eager to be a part of this, they’re speaking about it. … Talking about, ‘What can I do? How can I be a part of this?'”
Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat said emphasizing workforce readiness skills is becoming as important, if not more important, than pushing the ACT in a district where many students will not attend a four-year college after graduation.
“In a high school that doesn’t have the socio-economic background as our particular district, one in three students in America will go to college,” Labat said. “… In districts of poverty, that number may go from one in seven to one in 10. They don’t have that option and are not going to college, so what are we really preparing them for if they don’t have a trade, don’t have a skillset or an assessment that could open the door for an opportunity to higher wages and a better standard of living?”
She’s not the only area superintendent to think so.
“Everybody’s not going to college,” said Lowndes County School District Superintendent Sam Allison. “I think in Mississippi we want to treat everybody like they’re going to college for an education, and that’s not really fair.”
Like CMSD, LCSD is increasingly emphasizing WorkKeys for high school seniors.
“In the Golden Triangle area, we’re … blessed and inundated with a lot of industry,” said Lowndes County Career Tech Center Director Susan McClelland. “With that being said, I think it just helps children to be prepared to move right into the workplace, especially if they have that Silver or higher score.”
At both CMSD and LCSD, all seniors are required to take the WorkKeys along with the ACT, thanks to grants from the Golden Triangle Development LINK, which helps area districts fund the exam. McClelland and English teacher Eva Marie Lee, who teaches WorkKeys readiness at CHS, both said multiple area industries at least will consider the WorkKeys when making a hire — and that’s if they don’t outright require them, like Yokohama in West Point.
Lee said that goes for more than major industries like Paccar and Steel Dynamics.
“You’ve got the banks,” she said. “You’ve got small stores like Beans and Cream. … All kinds of business areas are going to be looking at them for this.”
More seniors taking exam area wide
The WorkKeys is produced by the same company that produces the ACT and awards scores Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum, with Platinum as the highest.
The exam has three parts, said Lee: applied math, which tests students on things like geometry and the ability to calculate discounts; workplace documents, which includes things like workplace policies, letters and memos; and graphic literacy, which tests students’ ability to read charts and data.
Unlike with some academic tests, she and McClelland said, the student’s overall score is whatever the lowest of their scores on the three tests was — meaning a student who scores a Gold on applied math and graphic literacy, but a Silver on workplace documents receives a Silver overall. That said, the students can retake just the section they want to do better on and get that higher score.
CMSD offers WorkKeys classes for some students and otherwise includes WorkKeys preparation in English classes, with math coaches coming in to help students with the applied math section. CHS also implements a WorkKeys bootcamp within two weeks before students are set to take the exam, Lee said. That way, if there’s anything students are struggling with, teachers and coaches at the boot camp can focus on that.
LCSD students take the exams at their home high schools — not through the CTC, McClelland said — and work with guidance counselors who set up practice exams to prepare students for the exams. Allison said between 400 and 500 seniors in the district take the exam every year.
At Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District, while not all seniors are required to take the WorkKeys, an increasing number of seniors are doing so, said Lenora Hogan, director of the district’s Millsaps Career and Technology Center.
Hogan said all students who complete the two-year program at the Career and Technology Center take the exam — between 60 and 90 students each year — as do any seniors who want to take and whose ACT scores show they have the aptitude to score a Gold or higher on the WorkKeys.
An increasing number of students have been doing that each year.
“In (the 2016-2017 school year), we had 68 students to take it,” Hogan said. “… This past year we had 153 to take it.
“Every year, after (students) leave, I’ll have them come back and say, ‘Man, Dr. Hogan, I wish I had taken the WorkKeys. Now I’m having to pay to take it because I want this job,'” she said.