Testing students' computer savvy; Knowledge: A new exam gives college students a chance to show their technical prowess to prospective employers.


So you know your Chaucer, but how about your CD-ROMs? You've got Schopenhauer down cold, but how do you handle a spreadsheet?

A new test has been designed to answer those questions, giving college students who major in the humanities and social sciences a chance to prove their technical prowess for potential employers.

Tek.Xam got its fourth and final test drive over the weekend as 1,000 students on more than 60 campuses in 25 states -- including Goucher College and the University of Maryland, College Park -- took the four- to five-hour test.

"So many younger people are technically competent, yet have an end degree that doesn't show any technical background," said Mark Warner, chairman of the Virginia Foundation of Independent Colleges (VFIC), which developed the test. "Yet there are so many things that come out of a liberal arts background, like critical thinking, that an employer wants."

Mei-Ling Johnson, an English major at Goucher, was one of the students prepared to take the test Saturday.

"There are a lot of professions out there that require a certain degree of computer proficiency," said the 20-year-old junior from Fallston. "But there was no certification of my knowledge unless I went through the Microsoft certification process -- which is expensive and difficult."

If the test catches on, its developers hope it will become a credential recognized by human resource officials at companies that might otherwise overlook liberal arts graduates.

"These are critical thinking problem-solvers who can write and communicate," said Linda Dalch, VFIC president. "When you add technical skills to that, you have a powerhouse, someone who can work on the technical side and cross the bridge into management."

Tek.Xam seems to be catching on. According to Mariah Bauer, the graduate assistant administering the test at UMCP, the 40 spaces were filled hours after an e-mail notice was sent to the campus. The waiting list was cut off at 80, with many more trying to get on.

"These students want to say, 'I can do this and here's my proof,'" Bauer said.

This was the students' last chance to take the test for free. Developers say it will cost $150 to $200 when it's officially launched, probably next spring.

"We want to create a brand, like the bar exam, the CPA test, that's not the product of any school, or any group of schools from one state, but that is recognized nationwide, worldwide, as a standard," said Warner, a venture capitalist active in Virginia Democratic politics.

The test is taken on the Internet and must be administered in wired computer labs. The publishers say it's "vendor neutral," which means it can be taken on Windows PCs or Apple Macintosh machines.

Paul Sankovich, VFIC's director of Tek.Xam, said one section requires using the Internet to research "relatively obscure questions." For example, he said, "We've asked the mileage of the most direct route driving from San Antonio, Texas to Jacksonville, Fla."

The test quizzes students about computer concepts and terminology, asks them to design a document using a word processor, prepare a PowerPoint-style presentation, create a spreadsheet from raw data and analyze it, and use case studies to evaluate legal and ethical issues such as privacy and copyright.

"One side of the test is technical, point-and-click, in nature; the other side is the more analytical," said Sankovich. "Can they create something that's persuasive and well designed? Can they read what a spreadsheet is telling them?"

James Harris, dean of arts and humanities at UMCP, said recognition of such a test would encourage students -- and their colleges -- to make sure they learn these skills.

UMCP officials were pleased by the 54 percent pass rate among the 31 students who took the test there in July -- double the overall pass rate.

"That showed me our students are very well prepared," said Carie Jones-Barrow, admission coordinator in the College of Arts and Humanities.

But the test's developers were pleased with the 25 percent to 30 percent overall pass rate. "We designed this to be rigorous," said Dalch. "We want people to know they are getting a sound product. If you have 90 percent of the people passing, what is the point of testing?

At Goucher, where 10 students interrupted their fall break to take the exam, it was viewed as a test of the school's efforts to infuse technology into its curriculum. Students there are required to take technical courses related to their majors; humanities students learn research skills while science majors tackle more complex computational tasks.

"We are among the liberal arts colleges that had a reputation for being a little ahead of the curve in this area so we wanted to participate," said Robert Welch, Goucher's academic vice president.

Warner said the idea for the test came up when VFIC -- which raises money for its 15 member schools -- was looking for a way to tap Northern Virginia's growing high-tech business community.

"Giving to the United Way of private colleges didn't hold that much attraction for those companies," Warner said. "We were looking for something that would be value added for them. They always need more trained workers, so we came up with the idea of a technical certification exam."

Support came from many of those companies as technical experts from VFIC colleges began asking their personnel officers what skills they were seeking. Money also flowed in from AT&T; and the Mellon Foundation.

The test has been tinkered with -- reduced from almost eight hours to about four -- and Warner expects an overhaul every six months to keep it current. Warner said VFIC might create a for-profit subsidiary to handle the exam or contract with a corporation to administer it nationwide.

"We're going from a mom-and-pop operation to rolling out on a national scale," said Dalch. "It's gotten the kind of response that makes you say, 'Why didn't we think of this sooner?'"

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