Taking ACT's WorkKeys Test for a Spin
October 18, 2012
This week, the Weekly reported on the Monterey County Business Council's efforts to leverage the ACT's WorkKey's test for economic development. It's kind of like the SAT or GRE, but for the general working population rather than students.
The idea is to help workers assess their skills, help companies target the right candidates, and help regions court new businesses by quantifying their available workforce.
I offered myself as a guinea pig, taking the test this afternoon at the MCBC's office on the CSU Monterey Bay campus. It's all online, and test-takers coordinate with the moderator—in my case, MCBC's Samantha Harrison (pictured above)—to launch each component.
I started with applied math, thinking it would be hardest. But the questions were a breeze for me, and I finished well ahead of the 55-minute limit. Ditto with the reading for information test. In both assessments the questions were set into real-work contexts, placing me in roles like shop clerk or lab assistant.
One thing was weird: The timer was all glitchy, making the numbers appear in what looked like Russian characters or the Wingding font. I pointed out the problem to Harrison, who said she'd tell ACT about it. But I was stuck with a timer that made no sense.
I'll blame that glitch for my failure to finish the locating information test: I timed out with eight of 38 questions unanswered. I'd figured that, as a reporter, I knew how to find information pretty well; but these questions, mostly based on graphic charts, were tough.
The trickier ones asked, for example, what kind of boom I should use as a machine operator if I want to lift 4,000 pounds 46 feet in the air with a rotation radius of 31 feet. And what size egress window I should sell a customer who wants to install on the second story of his home, considering the minimum sizes permitted by local codes and assuming he can frame in the difference. Huh? I spent so long digesting and decoding the answers—with no help from my Russian-looking timer—that the timeout hit me like a sack of flour. Curses.
Harrison printed my scores on the spot. I'd scored platinum on both the math and reading tests, but only gotten a silver on locating information. ACT certifies you according to your lowest score (from bronze to platinum), so that would give me a silver certificate overall.
Finally, I took the "talent assessment" that looks at soft skills like discipline and cooperation. This one makes subjective statements about how much you like your work, how cluttered your work space is, etc., on a six-point scale of "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree."
A caveat here. I think I can intuit how employers would want me to answer most of these questions, and if I were to take this test in hopes of getting hired or promoted—well—I'd probably cut myself a little extra slack. But since this was an experiment, I resolved to be blunt.
So, in responding to vague statements like, "People try to do the right thing" or "People are honest," I thought of the unpleasant subjects I often report on: corruption, pollution, scandal. In responding to statements like, "I always meet my deadlines" or "I feel stressed at the end of the work day," I tried not to flinch. (I'm paraphrasing from memory; the wording isn't exact.)
The talent profile rated me on 12 professional attributes, from "carefulness" to "striving." My best was "influence," but my "goodwill" score was dismal. Eek. The scales are based on percentiles—a comparison to other test-takers—and I'll bet most people respond in a way that's more flattering than honest.
I floated that theory by ACT spokeswoman Katie Wacker, who says "psychometricians" at ACT designed the test to flag unreliable results. “Don’t answer what you think an employer would want you to say," she says. "There are enough items that are worded slightly differently that they can red-flag a score report that seems like the person wasn’t consistent.”
Still, I'm sticking to my take-away lessons. I've got to work on reading graphics more quickly—and using a damned functional timer—if I retake that locating information test. And if that talent assessment comes up with real job stakes on the line? Just call me Little Miss Perfect.