National Field Test of Workplace Essential Skills (WES)
Jerome Johnston, Shannon Young, and Leslie Isler Petty - September 2001

Executive Summary (Abstract + Executive Summary, 7 pages, Acrobat format, 28K)
Full Report (Abstract, Executive Summary, Detailed Report: 74 pages, 140K)


Workplace Essential Skills (WES) is a multimedia (print, video and online) course designed for pre-GED adults who want to learn how to apply for a job, increase their knowledge of the workplace environment, and refine their reading, writing, communication, and/or mathematical skills to meet the demands of common workplace settings. A summative evaluation examined the use of WES in 14 classrooms in six states and Washington, D.C. between September 2000 and June 2001. Each of the four WES content strands - reading, math, communication and employment - was tested in six or more classes.

The goal of the study was to determine the potential of the materials to enhance the knowledge and skills of Adult Basic Education (ABE) learners who engaged the materials under optimal conditions, defined as six hours of classroom instruction for each WES curriculum unit. (Teachers encouraged students to work outside of class as well.) Student learning and job-seeking behaviors were measured using a pre-post research design with each student serving as his/her own control. Wherever possible, standardized and normed tests such as the CASAS reading and math assessments were used. However, WES covers many topics for which standardized tests do not exist; tailored tests of knowledge and skills were use for these topics.

Reading and Math. The most dramatic increases were noted for students studying the Reading and Math strands (4 and 5 units of instruction respectively). Impact was assessed using two standardized tests that are widely accepted in adult education-the CASAS ECS Reading and Math tests. Forty percent of the students showed impressive gains in their scores (5 points or more), even though the instructional time in this study (24-30 hours) was considerably less than the 100 hours CASAS suggests is needed. However, 60 percent did not improve, showing the difficulty of meeting the needs of ABE students with a single instructional approach.

Employment. Students studying the Employment strand (7 units) showed growth in several areas. In general, knowledge gains were modest, with only those adults that had very low pretest scores profiting from the instruction. In a special site where the instruction was more intensive students demonstrated greater gains on the assessment measure, pointing to the importance of good teaching. Studying the Employment strand also had a motivational effect: 20 - 25% of the students increased their job-seeking activity in areas such as searching for job information at the library, preparing a resume and sending it to an employer, and actually securing a job interview.

Communication. Students in the Communication strand (7 units) showed a small increase in knowledge-recognizing good practices in written, oral, and non-verbal communication in the workplace. They learned more about written communication practices than oral and non-verbal communication. They did not improve their skills in producing specific workplace forms-writing a memo or completing a work order. They also did not improve in the skill of finding the important data in a chart or table of information.Teachers had great latitude regarding which materials (video, workbook, online) they emphasized in the six hours of class time. Given that students attempted well less than half of the available online activities (from 15% of the activities for employment to 42% for mathematics), teachers may not have emphasized the online as much as the video and workbook. At a time when interest in online instruction is growing, more research needs to be done to understand why the WES online activities were underutilized.

WES can be viewed as a workplace survey course. While it provides some skill-building instruction, it places the greatest emphasis on understanding how and when various skills are needed in the workplace. Most topics are not covered in sufficient depth for students to fully master the topic in just six hours of class time per unit. Skill mastery requires additional teacher guidance and learner practice. In a typical class for which the WES materials are appropriate student deficiencies will vary quite widely. For each unit of instruction teachers need to assess student needs carefully, and plan to provide extra guidance and practice tailored to the specific needs.