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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