Employers would no longer be able to complain that school leavers lack basic literacy skills, under proposals in the Tomlinson report.
Pupils would have to prove a basic level of literacy and numeracy
The blueprint for reforming secondary education in England proposes that pupils would have to take a "core skills" test in three subject areas.
This would ensure pupils had skills in literacy, maths and information and communications technology.
Mike Tomlinson said this would represent a "guarantee" to employers.
For the first time, Mr Tomlinson said that there would be a clear statement of how much pupils would be expected to know in skills that were essential for the workplace.
These would not be substitutes for GCSEs in English and maths - but would be specific tests designed to show that youngsters had an established level of ability in these basic skills.
The report uses the phrase "functional" literacy and numeracy, emphasising that this is about practical skills.
Pupils could re-take these tests - but they would have to pass each element to gain the qualification. Achieving a high score in literacy would not make up for a marginal fail in numeracy, for example.
Mr Tomlinson rejected the suggestion that allowing pupils to re-take the tests would lower their value - saying that no one complained when people could re-take a driving test, which also was proof of having a set of specific skills.
These core skill tests are aimed at longstanding complaints from business leaders that too many pupils leave school without adequate levels of literacy and numeracy.
The CBI has claimed that one in three firms has to provide remedial literacy and numeracy lessons - which it says is a "national scandal".
But deputy director-general, John Cridland, says that employers remain to be convinced that the exam shake-up will deliver improvements.
"Firms want to know exactly how changing qualifications would raise standards in maths and English. Would it ensure the curriculum gives sufficient priority to literacy and numeracy? Would it improve teacher training so teachers have the skills to deal with the issue?"
But Secondary Heads Association leader, John Dunford, says that the proposals from Mr Tomlinson "precisely address the concerns of employers".