ACT’s WorkKeys certifies students are ready for work, reports PBS. Employers support it, but few high school students know it exists.

JOHN TULENKO: From the outside, Hoffer Plastics in Elgin, Illinois, looks about the same as it did when it was founded back in 1953. Inside, it’s a different story.

Bill Hoffer is the CEO.

BILL HOFFER, Hoffer Plastics Corporation: We have got job after job that 20 years ago would be a full-time operator. Now it’s a robot.

JOHN TULENKO: There are fewer workers, but they’re required to do more.

BILL HOFFER: They need to be able to read blueprints. They need to follow procedures, document what they’re doing. And that’s all very important.

Pat Hayes, CEO of Fabric Images, doesn’t know what an A in math means. “Where did you go to school? What level of course? Was it accelerated? Was it a college prep course? I don’t know.”

Both Fabric Images and Hoffer Plastics use WorkKeys to assess job candidates’ math, reading and information locating skills. Using workplace scenarios, the exam measures “how well individuals can decipher charts, graphs and other visual information, convert ratios, measurements, and make calculations across a variety of situations, and effectively comprehend memos, instructions and other authentic workplace documents,” says Tulenko. “There are also tests of visual observation and listening comprehension.”

Recent high school graduate Sarah Rohrsen was accepted at a four-year college, but couldn’t afford it. She took a job at Wendy’s. Nine month later, she applied for a job at Hoffer Plastics, did well on WorkKeys and landed a well-paying full-time job with benefits as an inspector.

Test takers can earn a work force readiness certificate called an NCRC that’s respected by employers. Superintendent Jose Torres wants 75 percent of his students to earn a gold certificate in five years.

JOHN TULENKO: So we went to Elgin High School, a predominantly low-income school where administrators say half the students go directly into the work force, to see how they were doing.

Raise your hand if you have heard of something called an NCRC certificate? No hands. OK.

It was like this in virtually every classroom we visited, and this was four years after the district adopted the 75 percent goal.

Only 22 percent of the district’s students earn a job readiness certificate.

Career readiness isn’t a priority, say teachers.

LAURIE NEHF, Elgin High School: I’m not told to have them job-ready. I’m told to have them college-ready.

. . . JOHN TULENKO: Last year in math, 60 percent of students missed the mark. A number of teachers here told us it’s not uncommon they find students in their classes who have yet to learn the math taught in middle school. Regardless, these students are placed in algebra and geometry.

LAURIE NEHF: They just shut down. They get very frustrated. We won’t accept meeting kids where they’re at and helping them where they’re at.

I would love to spend all my time working on percentages, fractions, all that stuff with number sense. That number sense skills is what matters in the real world.

Providing alternatives to the traditional high school math is risky for high schools, says Tulenko. The algebra-geometry sequence is what’s tested.

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