Choosing a career, Georgia students get help from a test

Matthew Taylor wanted to be a radio talk show host, but a couple of months after graduating from high school he took an online test that could alter the course of his life.

It revealed a propensity for helping others, and recommended a career in counseling.

“I would have never in a million years said I would be interested in being a marriage counselor or substance abuse social worker,” said Taylor, now 18 and in college. Yet those were among the jobs recommended in a 40-page personalized report. The test results led him to take a psychology class, a subject he now plans to major in.

Like many teens, Taylor faced life decisions with little insight into the job market — or into his own nature. Then, this summer, Marietta High School offered him a kind of high-tech crystal ball.

Leigh Colburn, the former principal-turned-director of the school’s new academic and behavioral support center, wanted to expose her students to data-driven tools that could inform their career choices. Several years ago, the school district began evaluating the multitude of products that claimed to slot people into the working world, and she kept hearing rave reviews from parents about one company in particular: YouScience.

The district tried out the product on students and adults. “They described it as freakishly accurate,” Colburn said. So now, Marietta is offering it to all students 17 and over, plus recent graduates.

It will also roll out to nearly one of every six public high school sophomores in Georgia this fall. A key state lawmaker over education policy, Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, heard what Colburn was up to, looked into it and liked what he saw. He advocated for a statewide pilot program using YouScience. For $150,000, a tiny sum next to the billions spent on K-12 education in Georgia, the company will give 20,000 students access to its services.

Georgia requires high school students to pick career “pathways” that can lead to college, tech school or a job, and Tippins worried that kids were making decisions in a vacuum.

“This is to help students make their own informed career path choice,” said Tippins, who chairs the Senate Education and Youth Committee. “It’s a component that I believe has been missing when we talk about workforce development.”

YouScience CEO Philip Hardin said his company used established psychological assessments to create an online test that he says can pinpoint aptitudes and interests. The company then matches those with the requirements of specific jobs as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor.

“We help them actually understand what they do well,” Hardin said. He said his company also informs students about job market forecasts from federal and state data, “so they know where to place their educational bets.”

Too many kids show up at college rudderless while some who think they know what they want end up locked into a field that doesn’t suit them or in which there are no jobs, said Gene Bottoms, senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board. A tool like this can help, he said.

YouScience says in a promotional video that its service reveals “true strengths” and “natural born abilities most important to career satisfaction and success.” It says the information can help choose a career “aligned with aptitudes,” so that “being successful will come naturally and be enjoyable rather than a constant uphill battle.”

But Bottoms and other experts warned that the results should be examined carefully.

“I would hate for kids to say, ‘OK, it says I’m not good at spatial visualization, so I’m not going to be an architect,’ ” said Julie Pace, an assistant professor of psychology at Emory University. Other qualities, such as motivation or “grit,” could be more important, she said, adding that some researchers believe aptitudes are not fixed and that people can grow and change. She once counseled a woman who yearned to become a lawyer despite having dyslexia, a seeming liability for a career that requires extensive reading. “But she was so determined and is now a successful lawyer,” Pace said.

Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior education lecturer at Harvard University, said it appeared that the service could be a useful tool, since it’s based on the prior work of credible career counseling researchers. But she cautioned that a trained counselor should help each student interpret his or her results. “What I like about it is it gives students data about themselves, but it can’t stop there,” she said. “My concern would be students receive the printout without appropriate counseling.”

Parent Wendy McCrabb of Cobb County followed the advice of another parent and bought a YouScience account for her daughter, Samantha. She was impressed with the results, which she thinks gave her daughter direction and confidence and will help her finish college on time. Tuition is costly enough over four years, she said. “You don’t have the time to waste. And the money. Who wants to waste the money?”

Ever since Samantha was a little girl, she had wanted to be a nurse, but the test said she had a head for business, describing her as a natural leader with an aptitude for math and for problem solving.

While considering colleges, Samantha visited a medical school, but afterward she acknowledged that she didn’t really like science. She decided to major in business, and loves it, McCrabb said. “So who knew? … This test successfully brought this out.”

Tippins wants to take the tool statewide if this pilot program proves it is successful. That will be determined mainly by surveys of students, parents and educators.

“I think you’re going to see this expand unless it’s an absolute dud,” Tippins said. “And if I thought it was an absolute dud, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it.”

While the cost per student is relatively small, the effects could be huge if hundreds of thousands of Georgia youths plan their lives based on the results.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.