In this photo taken in September 2015, Cesar Gomez (left) gets some guidance from school counselor B.J. Smith as he works on his YouScience online assessment at the Marietta Performance Learning center. The career test was used in a pilot program at Marietta High, and now the Georgia Board of Education has approved a contract that will make it available in every high school. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Another test in Georgia high schools, but this one is about the kids

Teenagers everywhere struggle with a gnawing question: Should I be a doctor or a dentist, a policeman or a pilot, a mathematician or a musician?

The lucky few seem to know the answer before they’re old enough to walk to school alone, but many spend years of trial and error after high school and still draw a blank. Now, Georgia education leaders think they may have what amounts to an answer key for this timeless riddle.

Startup company YouScience has tested its online career-path assessment system in Georgia high schools, and state officials have deemed it “promising” based on student reviews. On Thursday, the Georgia Board of Education approved a contract that will put the company’s product in every high school. The Georgia Department of Education and the Technical College System of Georgia will spend as much as $790,000 if all of the roughly half million high school students in the state decide to take the test.

“We hope it helps students realize what they have potential to do,” said Matt Arthur, deputy commissioner of TCSG, whose colleges often enroll older students in search of a career.

The test builds on research that dates back to at least World War II, when the U.S. military developed methods to determine whether recruits would be better at flying airplanes or fixing them.

Support for YouScience grew while its test was piloted at high schools around the state. Educators and industry leaders say too many youths meander after high school, either switching from major to major in college and perhaps never graduating, or working low-wage jobs before turning to a technical college for marketable skills.

“It’s going to be a tremendous tool to help students understand their aptitude and open up their universe to other opportunities,” said Mike Dunham, a leading spokesman for the state’s construction industry. The CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Georgia said four of his member companies felt so strongly about YouScience that in prior years they paid the cost of providing it to nearby schools. Contractors worry about where the next generation of workers will come from as baby boomers retire, and Dunham said too few youths recognize that they have an aptitude and interest in construction-related jobs, never considering the field.

The adoption of the test aligns with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s push for pragmatism in public education. The GOP gubernatorial hopeful said schools must embrace “skills, free enterprise and industry” and that he’s “excited about the opportunities YouScience will offer our students as they align their talents with the industries of our future.”

Many tests measure aptitude, but YouScience CEO Philip Hardin said his approach is novel because it marries aptitude, which many consider to be a fixed attribute, with interests, which can change. He described it as a test to reveal “talent.” The former WebMD executive started YouScience after surveying the career-testing field and finding the products wanting.

His own daughter’s experience was affirmation for him. She was ambivalent about college until her test results revealed she had an engineer’s mind but a desire to help people. Among the test’s recommendations was a career in medicine, which, years later, she is now pursuing, though neither she nor her dad had previously considered that path for her.

The test matches results with a U.S. Department of Labor career database known as O*NET, which correlates jobs and skills. YouScience returns a variety of possible careers while also revealing strengths and weaknesses that may or may not fit each job. The aptitude portion works like a high-pressure game, with timed exercises that require participants to discern patterns or similarities between numbers, words or images. The interest portion requires self reporting: Are you usually the center of the party, and do you like to work with your hands?

Leigh Colburn, the former principal of Marietta High School, was an early champion of YouScience. She learned about it from a parent, then tested it with her own staff and other parents before giving it to students.

“We found it freakishly accurate,” said Colburn, now retired and running her own educational consulting firm (that is not associated with YouScience). “My own kids have taken it and I thought it was spot on.”

Besides career advice, she said, the test is useful for giving otherwise clueless teenagers some self-awareness. It reveals strengths, which can be encouraging, but also surfaces weakness, like “detailed paperwork may not be your thing,” she said. It also gives students adjectives to describe themselves, which could be useful in job interviews or in college application essays.

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement released a report last summer that reviewed the performance of YouScience in 51 high schools. The students, especially girls and those from low-income households, “express relatively small, yet meaningful, attitudinal gains,” said the report, which was based on participant surveys.

Matthias Winsor, 19, was one of the first at Marietta High to take the test. He was a junior and already knew he wanted to study economics, which he is now doing at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. He didn’t heed the test’s suggestion that he consider a career in medicine, but said he gained insights that made the test worthwhile.

He learned that he’s strong with long-term planning but not so good with the short term, for instance. It’s a warning he’s taken to heart, consciously focusing on scheduling. “Now that I’m in college,” he said,” that’s seriously very helpful to me.”

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