"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Saturday, January 26, 2013

WorkKeys is more than Basic Skills

You must sort clothes in a dry cleaning establishment according to the customer's instructions. According to the form shown, how should this customer's shirt be treated?
1. Dryclean it, add light starch, and fold it.
2. Dryclean it, add light starch, and place it on a hanger.
3. Launder it with no starch and place it on a hanger.
4. Launder it with light starch and place it on a hanger.
5. Launder it with medium starch and fold it.
(This is a level 3 question out of 6 possible levels.)
    According to Paul Jurmo, “workers need not just the basic skills, but the ability to work in teams, solve problems, track down information, and behave responsibly.”  The sample question above has been borrowed from the ACT WorkKeys website.  Since I have been working with students on the WorkKeys assessments discussed in my classroom, I wanted to place this assessment in the decontextualized approach as a tool that evaluated basic skills when discussed in our class.  Dr. Muth challenged me to see it as having functional context also. 

    As a high school teacher of students with special education needs, I am hyper-focused daily on the assessing of basic skills with the ultimate goal of graduation in mind.  The testing for standards of learning is the end goal for that diploma, whether we agree to disagree or not, basic skills is what we are told to teach.  The SOLs have tested the basic skills of public school students for approximately fifteen years now.  In the last two years the state of Virginia has been changing the testing format, getting away from the multiple choice, one correct answer style that the students have been trained to master.  These previous versions have often challenged students with disabilities.  The newer multiple answer, fill in the blank, process multi-step types of questions are now true stumbling blocks as these students have not been ‘trained’ to test in this format.  As a result alternative assessments have been used to meet the requirements of a diploma.  The ACT WorkKeys falls in this category.

   The transition coordinator in Chesterfield County was looking for teachers who were willing to use the WorkKeys format with students with disabilities for two reasons.  One, these tests replace the newer difficult SOLs required toward graduation, but secondly if the student can pass three of these assessments they can earn a NCRC ("ACT's National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) is a portable credential that demonstrates achievement and a certain level of workplace employability skills in Applied Mathematics, and Locating Information, and Reading for Information.").  Since I have been trained to view the SOL test as the ‘end all’ goal, I was excited to offer students this opportunity in my classroom as the NCRC was just a bonus.  From my viewpoint I was still hyper-focused on those SOL requirements, hence the WorkKeys became a basic skills test and decontextualized from my perspective.

   This week I watched over the shoulder of some of my students as they worked on the practice problems on the AZTEC program which prepares the students for final assessment in WorkKeys.  Yes, these problems address basic skills; there are multiplication problems, division problems and questions about verbs, subjects and objects.  However, the reading and writing questions in particular are focused on real-life common sense skills needed for success in the workforce.  For example:  Write a “how to” list for greeting a customer in a restaurant or write a “how to” list for closing a store for the night.  This evaluates the basic skills and the “workplace literacy” as described by Jurmo.  If you are an employer isn’t what you want your employee to know as basic as “how to greet a customer”?   As an employer you want them to understand the basics of your business, yes add up the bill for the customer, but before the employee can add up the bill and demonstrate the basic skill, they must get the customer to order a product.  Isn’t that truly basic if you want make money?  Perhaps our definition of basic skills is too narrow.

    The NCRC will allow my students, who are workplace bound, the ability to inform a hiring authority that they have the basic skills necessary for success in job-related training.  When walking into certain hiring authorities they will not be led to a computer to test and prove their abilities, instead the NCRC is documentation that they already have the skills needed.  This saves time for the hiring authority as it takes the guesswork out of the hiring process.  The NCRC will demonstrate that my student has basic skills, common sense and it discloses their employee potential.  It is easy to see now that the WorkKeys has both decontextualized context and functional context.


  1. Lisa, I am so glad you are wrestling with WorkKeys. Your examples make it clear how these so called "functional-contextual" models are still essentially decontextualized skills, because the skills are extracted from hypothetical work situations and assessed discretely. Still there is a smidgen of contextualization, since the students need to envision a whole (e.g. Dry cleaning) context and break it into parts. But we will see how very different the learning experiences are in situated contexts as the term is used in social-cultural theory. BUT ALSO, this doesn't mean that decontextual methods are bad!!! Sometimes they are, sometimes they ain't.... BTW, there's a forum this week in Chesterfied CO to raise challenges to the SOLs. It's supported by our very own Richmond Teachers for Social Justice. Here's the link: http://www.chesterfieldobserver.com/news/2013-01-23/News/Local_parents_challenge_SOL_testing.html

  2. One of the things I'm looking at during this class is how the literacy of what I teach impacts my students as they try to use these skills in their jobs. I try to contextualize the decontextualized texts we use in class in order to help them internalize the skills.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.