Getting our ACT together


By Scott Robertson

There once was a time when a high school diploma had a meaning it no longer has. When my parents graduated high school, their diplomas were attestations to the fact these were educated people. Being educated meant they had shown in school they were smart enough and worked hard enough to be good employees for businesses in the community. Whether graduates chose to use those credentials as keys to college or directly into the workforce, diplomas opened doors.

Many things have changed since my parents went to high school. High school diplomas today may mean different things, depending on the school. Universities tend to look at diplomas from most Tennessee high schools as having less value than diplomas from states with more rigorous academic standards for their public school systems.

Businesses don’t even know what a high school diploma means, for the most part. A diploma from a small rural county school in the fiftieth-largest county in the state means something totally different from a diploma from the best performing high school in a top ten county, yet both diplomas are supposed to certify, well, something. Some employers have begun to feel that if a diploma can mean anything, it doesn’t tell you anything.

Couple that vagary with the more specific needs of employers in a post-industrial workplace and you find a vacuum where the high school diploma used to be.

Educators want to provide their communities with graduates who are ready to take their places as educated, productive citizens. They work hard at it. But they also have to deal with some realities that teachers didn’t have to deal with when my parents were high schoolers. Those challenges vary by community.

This is why the National Career Readiness Certificate initiative is beginning to take hold in counties all over the country. Administered by the ACT, the NCRC is designed to show employers the same kinds of things a diploma used to.

Attaining the NCRC starts with an exam, like the ACT itself. The exam assesses each student’s abilities in three core areas: applied mathematics, reading for information and locating information.

Where a high school test might measure mathematics knowledge by asking about the Pythagorean theorem, the NCRC asks questions such as computing when a company will need to place orders for new parts based on existing inventory and usage rates.

Where a high school test might measure a student’s ability to read for information by providing questions about Huckleberry Finn, the NCRC asks questions from an employee’s user manual for a piece of manufacturing equipment.

The section on locating information is designed to measure deductive and inductive reasoning and problem-solving skills. Information is presented in writing or in graphic format, and students are required to pull the relevant bits of information and manipulate them.

While students in school receive grades (in most schools) ranging from A-F, the scoring of the NCRCs is bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Based on the scores a student receives, employers who use NCRC scoring in their hiring processes have a clear picture of who that student is, regardless of whether they went to high school in Boston or Jonesborough. The test is standardized across the nation.

A few employers in the region already use NCRCs as part of their hiring process. Eastman Chemical Co., in Kingsport, for instance, has many positions requiring platinum proficiency in one or more of the three NCRC core competencies. International Paper in Elizabethton also uses NCRCs.

These companies have profiled the jobs in their facilities, identified the skills needed to perform each one, and determined what level of competence each job demands.

Students who have taken the exam know what positions they are qualified to apply for; companies who use the results have a way to move better-qualified students to the front of the line when filling vacant positions.

There’s a tertiary benefit. Companies that know they can trust their workforce are more likely to stay in a given market. Just so, companies that are looking for new markets into which to move are eager to be shown a quantifiable, verifiable qualified workforce.

The eight counties of the First Tennessee Development District in Northeast Tennessee are working to use the WCRC to show employers that this entire region is a “work-ready community.” So far in Tennessee, only a few counties in West Tennessee are doing so. Northeast Tennessee has a chance to get ahead of the curve on this.


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