We are all familiar with the multitude of standardized tests that measure student achievement each year. But these are not the only – and perhaps not even the best – way to measure the success of our students. What about the impact students have on their community? What about a student’s ability to communicate and work in a team? What about students who earn high level industry recognized credentials? What impact do they have on providing West Virginia with a highly skilled workforce? When considering education’s impact on the state’s economy and the ability of students to find high-wage employment, the other measures of student achievement are extremely important.
According to a 2017 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the “ability to work in a team” was the most desired attribute of a potential employee. Teamwork was followed closely by written and verbal communication skills and was listed ahead of analytical/quantitative skills and other attributes that are emphasized in formal educational settings. The skill sets revered by businesses are often found in our successful career technical education (CTE) students. These students perform at a high level in their classroom because they have real buy-in to their learning. According to the 2018-19 National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) assessment, a series of tests to determine CTE students’ level of workforce readiness, West Virginia students performed 21% above the workplace entry-level and 6% above the national average on workforce readiness standards in 10 key industry CTE programs.
Our students perform so well on these tests because the tests mean something to them. To provide students with demand-driven skills that will set them up for career success, the West Virginia Department of Education and state businesses collaborated to create the Simulated Workplace — powerful learning environments that transform the traditional classroom into student-led companies that replicate real-world work experiences.
A foundational pillar of Simulated Workplace is entrepreneurship. Students are exposed to mathematics and English language arts concepts through mastery of accounting, marketing, branding and bookkeeping for their student-led companies. Administrators and educators tell us that students are excited to come to school and learn because of the Simulated Workplace model.
The West Virginia Department of Education is taking entrepreneurship to a higher level by intentionally carving out a dedicated Entrepreneurship Pathway in 11 CTE centers throughout the state. The West Virginia Department of Education partnered with Marshall University’s iCenter, former Intuit Chairman and CEO Brad Smith and Intuit Education to develop this pathway model that will be used throughout the state and nationally.
There has been much talk of the state’s need to push the economy in new areas, and it will be today’s students who do just that. According to WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research Director John Deskins’ annual report delivered during the recent West Virginia Economic Outlook Conference, “Given the complexity that we see in the real world, nobody really, really knows how to diversify our economy or where to diversify our economy until somebody tries it. That’s why it all boils down to entrepreneurship.”
Within the Entrepreneurship Pathway, we are already seeing creative ideas that could impact West Virginia.
Recently, students at Lincoln County High School received a grant from MIT to help with the design and implementation of a wind tunnel project that could have a major impact on the agricultural community. Students at Calhoun-Gilmer Career Center received a grant from SONY to develop smart-home technology that could keep an aging population safe in their own homes for longer. When Brad Smith met with Simulated Workplace students last month, his excitement about the new program was palpable as he expressed the importance of entrepreneurship skills in development of the 21st century workforce. Brad sees West Virginia’s potential to be the next Silicon Valley, and the creativity and excitement for learning experienced in Simulated Workplace companies gives me hope that this could be a real possibility for the Mountain State.
Test scores are important, but they are just a snapshot of a small sample of students in a single moment in time. The true test of West Virginia’s education system is determined by the quality of the emerging workforce. I encourage you to look beyond just test scores and see the real future of West Virginia. It is fueled by students. They are bright. They are technically skilled. They are innovative, and I am confident in the future they are building in the Mountain State.
Steven L. Paine is West Virginia’s superintendent of schools.