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Lawmakers consider eliminating Work Keys exam for Michigan high school students

steve carmody
Michigan Radio

In the future, Michigan high school juniors might have one less test to take.

Since 2007, Michigan high school students have spent half a day taking the ACT Work Keys exam.  The exam tests a student’s ability to solve workplace problems and thus assess whether they are ready to enter the workforce.

However, many educators question the value of the half-day test to students and the schools.

“Test results in the ACT Work Keys provide absolutely no valuable data for schools,” says Matt Outlaw, Superintendent of the Brandon School district in northern Oakland County, “(Work Keys) value to the business community is questionable and quickly diminishing.”

During a recent hearing by the state House Education Reform committee, several witnesses testified that the Work Keys test takes up time and resources that could be better spent.

“We are ten years into our state’s experiment with Work Keys. We paid $4 million a year and lose a day of instruction to administer a test that by and large goes unused,” says Bob Kefgan, with the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

But business groups argue Work Keys is useful and should continue to be a requirement in Michigan high schools.    

Andy Johnston is with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. He says many West Michigan employers use the test results when screening for potential future employees. 

“A high school diploma doesn’t tell you a heck of a lot about the skills that a student has walking out of that institution,” says Johnston. “The intent of this is to show these skills that these students have to employers.”

Michigan is one of four states (Alabama, South Carolina and Wisconsin) that require and fully pay for students to take the Work Keys exam. Nine other states pay to administer the test to specific groups. In Michigan, beside high school students, Michigan Works and the Corrections department also give the exam. 

ACT is probably best known for its college entrance exams.  But the non-profit organization provides a wide range of college and career readiness testing services.

At last week’s legislative committee hearing, ACT officials defended the value of Work Keys, not only for the individual student who can use the results when applying for job, but to the state as a whole.

George Schlott is an executive with ACT. He notes that Site Selection magazine uses Work Keys data as part of its metrics to decide where the best places are to grow a business in the United States.  

“Michigan was ranked 1st in the 50 states…by Site Selection magazine,” says Schlott. 

Still, that may not be enough to convince state lawmakers who believe teachers and students are “weary” of Lansing’s mandates.

“Eliminating the Work Keys mandate would truly be a game changer for our teachers,” says Rep. John Reilly (R-Oakland), sponsor of the bill, “But let me be clear, eliminating this mandate does not harm career and technical education…nor does ending it harm our efforts to promote skilled trades.”

Reilly’s bill would make the test optional and let districts pay for it themselves if they want to administer it.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.