- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Long before children learn to read and write, adults enjoy musing about what their offspring will do someday for a living.

An engineer father bets his son will follow his path the first time the toddler takes apart a toy never mind that dad has to reassemble it. A soccer-enthusiast mother sees a future athletic star in her daughter, who swiftly kicks the family cat while eating dinner.

Sometimes parents' hunches are right. Sometimes, too, children are blessed with talents so clearly defined that the choice of profession leaves no doubt.

Such cases are rare, however. For most families, it takes a long time and many mistakes before children find careers that meet their interests and use their talents. To help sort through the wide array of career choices, many parents use professional testing services to identify their children's strongest abilities.

Finding a niche

"Our philosophy is you enjoy your work a whole lot more if you do what you are good at," says Rusty Burke, a test administrator at the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation in Rockville. The foundation administers a variety of aptitude tests to teen-agers and adults to identify individual abilities. The test takers then are advised on which careers would make the best use of their talents.

"We make a distinction between an aptitude and a skill," Mr. Burke says. "An aptitude is something that is innate, whereas a skill can be acquired." Matching an aptitude with a passionate interest makes the best chance for a happy career, he says.

The foundation's tests, which cost $480, are done in two half-day sessions, and a third visit is arranged to discuss the results in depth. The tests measure a person's ability at reasoning, problem-solving, memory, color perception and spatial thinking. The tests also judge a person's ability to identify musical tones and pitches. Finger dexterity is measured with tests using tweezers to move objects from one place to another.

"Most of the time, the test results will really make sense to the person," Mr. Burke says. "They'll say, 'I really do like this kind of stuff.' It's not as common to find people whose interests and aptitudes are opposite. Those are the ones you have to spend more time with."

The typical test taker is around 17, getting ready to go to college and trying to decide on a major. However, high school students also come to the testing center because they need to choose a direction in their high school course of study.

"One of the problems with high school and college is that most people are focusing on developing just one ability," Mr. Burke says. "When a person has several abilities, it opens up different occupation areas."

Sometimes the tests can prevent people from making mistakes. The foundation recently tested a high school student who was interested in computers and planning on pursuing a computer science degree in programming. The tests showed that the student had no ability in working with three-dimensional concepts, Mr. Burke says.

"He was shocked," Mr. Burke says. "He was the kind of kid who liked taking apart toasters, so he thought he would be good at design. As a result of the tests, he is choosing a different course of study that uses other aptitudes."

Score spells it out

While Johnson O'Connor attracts older students, a chain of educational centers is helping younger students identify their strengths and weaknesses through a computer learning program. Score, a San Francisco-based educational company, opened the first centers in the Washington area in 1997. The centers offer two types of services:

• An individualized program that offers a computer-based learning program, which adapts to each child's strengths and weaknesses. Children are taught to set goals and earn rewards for meeting them. For example, children can shoot two baskets into an indoor basketball hoop after mastering certain tasks. Students come to the center twice a week for an hourlong session. This program costs $119 a month with a $100 registration fee.

• A small group-tutoring program in which three students work with an instructor to meet specific academic goals. Lesson plans are based on an assessment of individual abilities. Students meet for an hour twice a week. This costs $295 a month with a $100 registration fee.

"I like this better than school. At school sometimes it's not so much fun to learn," says Janice Wissink, 10, a student at Kent Gardens Elementary School in McLean. Janice's family moved to the United States from the Netherlands last year, so the 10-year-old is still mastering English.

She also is concentrating on math in her work at the Score center in McLean.

Perched on a bench outside the Score center, Janice and her friend Lauren Svestka, 11, talk about how much they enjoy working on their skills outside of school hours. "I've been working on math," Lauren says. "I've been doing much better in school since I started coming here. The counselors are really nice."

Parents like Score because it provides a detailed breakdown of their child's reading and math abilities. It helps identify areas where the child might need more help and build on areas of strength in choosing schools and camps.

Cheryl Person brought her 11-year-old daughter, Kelsey, to Score in June to make sure her math skills didn't slide over the summer. "She really enjoys coming it gives her more confidence in school."

Testing out careers

While aptitude tests and educational assessments can be helpful, the best way to test out a career is to work in the field. High school students can get clues about what they would like to do by getting an internship or summer job in their field of interest.

Some school systems offer vocational programs that allow children to explore careers that can lead to work that doesn't require a four-year college degree.

"Kids have to identify faster what they want to do today," says Eileen Mandell, a Vienna resident whose son, Michael, is a senior at George Marshall High School near Falls Church. A mother of three boys, Mrs. Mandell says Michael her youngest was shy and "not the greatest student" when he decided to take a course in film production last year.

The course was offered at Chantilly High School through Fairfax County's academy program, which offers juniors and seniors specialized curricula and credit for courses that can lead to vocational careers. There are four academies in the Fairfax school system, including the one at Chantilly.

"This is an elective program," says John Wittman, director of the 3-year-old program, which is gaining national attention for its focus on melding education and on-the-job experience.

"We provide the opportunity for students to explore a career area to find out if they like it," he says. "Eighty-five percent of our graduates go on to post-secondary school in the past, many of these kids would not have gone on to college."

Michael enrolled in Chantilly's academy program because he thought he wanted to be a filmmaker. He enjoyed the program but discovered that his true passion was for acting, not the more technical aspect of filmmaking.

"He found out he would rather be in front of the camera than behind it," Mr. Wittman says. "But that's OK, because that's what our program is designed to do to allow kids to explore their interests."

Mrs. Mandell says the Chantilly program was a great choice for Michael because it taught him what goes on behind the camera. The program also helped build his confidence about what he wants to pursue as a career.

"It's always been uppermost in my mind to help people find out what they want to do," she says. She says she might not have guessed that acting would be Michael's passion without the help of his drama teacher, who persuaded him to try out for a part in a play. That decision led to his enrollment in the Chantilly High School Academy and then his return to Marshall to resume his involvement with drama.

Now Michael plans to make acting his primary focus. He plans to attend Marymount Manhattan College in New York City, which has a strong drama department. Says Mrs. Mandell: "Michael is lucky to discover that acting is what he loves to do."

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