A coalition of Virginia colleges announced yesterday that it has created the nation's first computer skills test for liberal arts majors, so that students who are well-versed in the poetry of Lord Byron or the etchings of Albrecht Durer can show an employer that they also know how to design a Web page.
The five-hour exam, called Tek.Xam, will be marketed nationwide to students next spring. The test designers say they expect several thousand students to take the exam next year, with the number soon climbing if the test proves popular with corporate recruiters.
Developed by the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, a group of 15 private colleges, the voluntary exam covers seven areas: Internet research, general computing concepts, Web design, presentation software, spreadsheets, word processing and legal and ethical issues of the information age. Students who pass the test will receive a certification.
Several educators and business executives outside Virginia praised the initiative and said it addresses an issue important to both employers and college graduates.
Robert Thirsk, director of the career development center at Stanford University, said many employers are looking for liberal arts majors with such computer skills. "At the moment, their only way of finding out what the students can do is to ask them pointed questions in interviews," he said.
Michael Wilk, national director of recruiting for the professional services firm Ernst & Young, said the test could prove very useful to corporate recruiters. "No matter what roles people play in our firm, we use these technological skills in all parts of our business," he said.
Mark Warner, an Alexandria telecommunications executive and chairman of the Virginia college foundation, said he anticipates the group will charge a $100 test fee and eventually could attract as many as 10 percent of the 4.5 million liberal arts majors in the country.
Warner, a former U.S. Senate candidate in Virginia, said schools in at least 26 states already have agreed to offer the test to their students, "and we hope to sign up all 50 states by next spring."
The test was designed by technology faculty members at the 15 colleges, including Marymount University in Arlington, who worked with human resource executives from several national and Virginia corporations, such as Bell Atlantic-Virginia, EDS Communications, Media General Inc. and Norfolk Southern Corp.
Warner said the fourth round of practice exams in the two-year test assessment process will take place next month.
He said the idea grew out of a discussion nearly three years ago about ways to ease the regional and national shortage of people with useful computer skills. The test was seen as good way to uncover technological talents that many undergraduates already had--and to allow them to major in the liberal arts curricula that still distinguish small private colleges without worrying that they might be unemployed after graduating.
Although the current venture is nonprofit, Warner said the foundation eventually may develop a corporate partnership that would earn money for the colleges involved.
Educators said that although the test may encourage liberal arts colleges to add more computer courses, many students who have acquired computer skills through regular high school and college work will do well on the exam.
"Even if you are not looking for a career in technology, just about any employer would like to see that on a resume," said Matt Reinaker, a sophomore at the University of Richmond majoring in speech and literature. Reinaker, 19, plans to take the test within the two years.
Todd Wirth, a 22-year-old chemistry major at Roanoke College, said he has taken the test and considers it "an SAT for the business world." Even college science majors suffer from a feeling among employers that they are not trained to handle practical problems, he said, so "the other nice feature about this exam is that it was designed in part by technology companies."