Michael J. Feuer and Richard J. Shavelson
The American labor market is experiencing a dramatic transition. Between 1970 and 1993 the proportion of all U.S. workers employed in manufacturing fell by 41 percent, from 27 percent of total employed to 16 percent. In one year alone, 1992-1993, 40 million new jobs were created in the nonfarm sector, while some 238,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. The shift has clearly been in the direction of employment that relies on a different mix of skills. For example, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1994), the fastest-growing occupations include home health aides, physical therapy aides, computer engineers, and scientists; the fastest-declining occupations are frame wirers, signal or track switch maintainers, and central office operators.
At the same time, the distribution of earnings among U.S. workers has shifted dramatically. On average, male high school graduates aged 25-34 earned 15 percent less in 1989 than in 1979 (Levy and Murnane, 1992). And the gap between the earnings of high school and college graduates grew from 13 to 43 percent between 1982 and 1992.
These shifts have contributed to a growing sense of alarm about the capacity of the nation's schools to supply adequately skilled graduates to the work force. Indeed, concern with long-term productivity and competitiveness has been a principal force behind the wave of education reform efforts that began in the mid-1980s. But the role that schools can or should play in preparing people to enter the world of work is hotly debated. Business leaders tend to lament the low skill
This chapter draws on the published conference summary, Transitions in Work and Learning: Implications for Assessment (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1996).
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--> 1—Introduction Michael J. Feuer and Richard J. Shavelson The American labor market is experiencing a dramatic transition. Between 1970 and 1993 the proportion of all U.S. workers employed in manufacturing fell by 41 percent, from 27 percent of total employed to 16 percent. In one year alone, 1992-1993, 40 million new jobs were created in the nonfarm sector, while some 238,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. The shift has clearly been in the direction of employment that relies on a different mix of skills. For example, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1994), the fastest-growing occupations include home health aides, physical therapy aides, computer engineers, and scientists; the fastest-declining occupations are frame wirers, signal or track switch maintainers, and central office operators. At the same time, the distribution of earnings among U.S. workers has shifted dramatically. On average, male high school graduates aged 25-34 earned 15 percent less in 1989 than in 1979 (Levy and Murnane, 1992). And the gap between the earnings of high school and college graduates grew from 13 to 43 percent between 1982 and 1992. These shifts have contributed to a growing sense of alarm about the capacity of the nation's schools to supply adequately skilled graduates to the work force. Indeed, concern with long-term productivity and competitiveness has been a principal force behind the wave of education reform efforts that began in the mid-1980s. But the role that schools can or should play in preparing people to enter the world of work is hotly debated. Business leaders tend to lament the low skill This chapter draws on the published conference summary, Transitions in Work and Learning: Implications for Assessment (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1996).
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--> levels of entry-level workers but are often unclear about exactly what skills are most important; educators tend to challenge the notion that their principal objective should be to supply skilled laborers, even as many of them recognize the public's historical faith in schools as the gateway to good jobs and a high standard of living. With nearly constant reminders of the economic revolution affecting all industrial societies, questions about how to define and measure workplace competencies, how to establish skill requirements, and how to create incentives for teaching and learning in schools and work establishments have again risen to the fore. The central questions are often posed with deceiving simplicity: How is work changing? What skills are required to perform productive work? What methods are needed to provide accurate information about the supply of skills and employers' demands? What are the effects of using tests and other indicators of performance on efficient and equitable functioning of labor markets? To help nurture the important and ongoing national dialogue on these issues, the National Research Council's Board on Testing and Assessment convened a two-day conference in March 1996, at which a group of researchers and policy makers engaged in an interdisciplinary review and discussion of available data and implications for assessment policy. This activity reflects on one of the board's principal mandates: to foster high-level scientific deliberations on public policy issues that involve the design, uses, and effects of testing and assessment technologies. The board commissioned a set of papers for the conference that, together, offer a uniquely cross-cutting view of the evolving role of assessment in fostering both improved learning and clearer signaling of individuals' skills. The authors were asked to draw on their own research expertise and to consider the implications of their work for the more general questions surrounding education, training, and school-to-work policies. The papers in this volume are grouped into five parts, following the format of the conference. Part I consists of two papers that raise the fundamental underlying question: Does empirical evidence support the claim of a skills mismatch in the U.S. economy? Expressed differently, are changes in the organization and output of work in the U.S. economy creating a demand for skills that are not adequately provided by the existing education system? In his paper, Harry Holzer reports that economic returns to education have risen dramatically in recent years and argues that the supply of skilled workers has not kept pace with the shifting labor market demand for higher levels of educational attainment. Although this short-run imbalance could theoretically be overcome in the long term if employers and workers invest in appropriate education and training, Holzer cautions against overreliance on the market's capacity for self-correction. Among the policies that he urges exploration of are those that
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--> can improve the quality and flow of information between the education and work sectors, which suggests the need for test-based data that signal the skills that young workers should acquire and that provide employers with reliable information about workers' likely future productivity. In Chapter 2, Robert Zemsky offers a different perspective on the skills gap hypothesis. He argues that most employers do not believe that schools can fulfill their needs, no longer look to the schools as a fertile ground for future employees, and would prefer to rely on an older cohort of workers with labor market experience. Taking issue with those who point to a lack of communication between schools and workplaces as the principal explanation of weaknesses in the American school-to-work transition system, Zemsky argues that employers are typically unable to articulate what skills they need, so that even if better communication links were established the content of the communications would still be inadequate. In his view, employers resort to a ''trial-and-error" hiring strategy, reserving the best jobs for those with significant prior experience. Zemsky claims this is a contributing factor to the phenomenon of labor market "churning" wherein young workers spend many years after formal schooling moving into and out of various jobs. Part II of the volume moves the discussion from the macroperspective of aggregate economic and survey data into a detailed microlevel exploration of the changing nature of jobs in specific workplaces. The papers by Bonalyn Nelsen and Glynda Hull represent the increasingly important ethnographic perspective on labor markets, which adds richness and texture to discussions about the skill demands of employers, the organization of education and training, and the possible effects of alternative assessment and credentialing strategies. Nelsen reports on her research on automobile repair technicians and offers evidence that on-the-job learning is a necessary step in becoming a top-level repair technician and that such learning builds on social skills as well as more traditional academic skills. Her paper underscores the importance of including measures of "social capital"—skills and knowledge required to evaluate and respond to situational demands in social settings—in studies of changing skill demands and the educational implications. Similarly, Hull focuses on a particular type of workplace—electronics factories in Silicon Valley. Her main argument is that literacy skills are critical in the definition of high-performance workplaces. For example, reorganization of the electronics factory into a high-performance workplace with work teams had an enormous effect on the literacy requirements of front-line workers engaging in circuit assembly. Especially in multilingual workplaces, Hull argues, "a literate identity is an important aspect of a worker's sense of [self]." Based on her ethnographic study, she concludes that requirements for formal, informal, written, and oral communications are changing significantly as companies become high-performance work organizations. Her suggestion that workers with limited English language skills can develop compensatory mechanisms for effective communication
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--> with co-workers and supervisors points to the need for careful definition of "literacy" in the context of workplace performance and productivity. Part III addresses the implications of changing workplaces for the assessment and measurement of skills. Robert Mislevy's principal suggestion is that assessment tools need to be developed that more accurately reflect real-world situations in which learning takes place. Mislevy argues that increasing heterogeneity in the workplace demands that assessment tools provide fair and accurate information on a wide range of skills and abilities and that tests alone cannot measure abilities independent of cultural and other factors that influence the effectiveness of learning environments. Kenneth Pearlman concentrates on the manager's perspective of screening and selection decisions and on the importance of "cross-functional skills," such as organizing, planning, decision making, negotiating, and teamwork, in the evolving high-performance workplace. Pearlman suggests that assessment and learning need to be tightly integrated activities and argues for the creation of "programs that integrate, motivate, and reward development of [cross-functional] skills in K-12 education." How will changing definitions and requirements of work, coupled with new approaches to selection, screening, and assessment, be constrained by the legal and social environment? This was the basic question posed in the fourth session of the conference, which included papers by Dennis Parker and Neil Schmitt. Parker calls attention to the purpose of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act—to improve the school-to-work transitions of all students. The goal of greater inclusion holds important implications for testing and assessment. On the one hand, linking schools and workplaces more tightly suggests a significant role for testing as a means of evaluating the extent to which young people have acquired the requisite skills; but as Parker notes, schools and school districts must be aware of the legal and social issues that surround the use of tests as gatekeepers for employment opportunity. In his paper, Schmitt discusses the formidable challenge of using valid assessments to achieve a capable and diverse work force within the constraints of the 1991 Civil Rights Act. His paper offers five approaches to meeting the challenge: (1) include additional measures of job-related constructs that have little or no adverse impact; (2) change the format of questions or the types of responses required; (3) use computer or video technology to present test items; (4) employ procedures currently used in education, such as portfolios and "authentic" assessments; and (5) change the way scores are used and interpreted and consider the use of "bands" rather than cut scores and rankings. Schmitt is guardedly optimistic about the combined effects of these strategies but argues for continued exploration of new assessment methods well suited to the changing demands of work and learning. Part V of this volume offers three overarching perspectives on the evolving literature and policy debate over school-to-work transitions and the roles of assessment.
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--> Larry Cuban urges greater consideration of the historical and political contexts of the policy debate. Lauren Resnick advocates the possibility of strengthening human intellectual capacity by employing an effort-based school-to-work system. Alan Lesgold offers the perspective of a cognitive psychologist and provides a provocative set of suggestions stemming from research on the types of knowledge necessary and useful in various work contexts. Among Cuban's key suggestions is that the role of teachers be kept in sharp focus: to argue that schools must change, he notes, means that teachers must "alter [their] behavior in ways to make learning better for students." But, he warns, if one accepts the basic premise that schools are responsible for young people's transitions to work, it follows that those who have caused the existing problem (teachers) are also the ones expected to bring about the solution. Resnick suggests an alternative effort-based approach to our nation's present system of education and its accompanying modes of entry into the work force, which, according to her, is designed around the belief that talent and ability are largely inherited and fixed. Resnick posits that it is our current approach to educational practice and not our teachers that is the cause of existing problems. Implementation of the effort-based system Resnick describes would provide some remedy for what she views as a two-tiered education system driven by our perceptions of students' talent and ability. Lesgold, too, draws attention to the conflicting and potentially incompatible demands placed on schools and teachers. He notes, for example, that while teamwork and quick thinking are often cited as critical parts of modern work, these are not necessarily the kinds of skills and abilities that schools are expected to emphasize: indeed, whether teamwork and quick thinking can be made compatible with other goals of education—individual and independent thinking, careful (often necessarily slow) experimentation with new ideas—raises a serious issue for policy makers aiming for better links between the worlds of formal schooling and postsecondary learning and work environments. The papers in this volume make a significant contribution to our understanding of the complex and interlocking issues of changing work, learning, and assessment. They provide the conceptual frameworks and empirical bases necessary for inquiry into the pressing issues surrounding transitions into and between learning and work environments. The Board on Testing and Assessment plans to continue to serve as a focal point for these issues. References U.S. Department of Commerce 1994 Statistical Abstract of the United States: The National Data Book. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce. Levy, F., and R.J. Murnane 1992 U.S. earnings levels and earnings inequality: A review of recent trends and proposed explanations. Journal of Economic Literature 30:1333-1381.