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13 States Agree to Test of 'Ambitious' Vocational Program

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In a pioneering effort to improve the preparation of students enrolled in vocational education, selected school districts in 13 Southern states have agreed to serve as testing grounds for new programs that infuse advanced academic studies into work-related training.

The pact among 33 districts in states belonging to the Southern Regional Education Board is the first such effort in vocational education, said Gene Bottoms, director of the SREB-State Vocational Education Consortium, which is coordinating the project.

The pilot sites, he said, "have committed themselves to seeing that students in vocational-education programs are given more instruction in the complex, higher levels of mathematics, communications, and science as they relate to better understanding of a given occupational field.''

In another first, the SREB states will be using tests from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to evaluate the reading, mathematics, and science skills of students enrolled in vocational education at the demonstration sites.

NAEP Assessments

An initial assessment using the NAEP tests will be administered this spring to graduates completing a vocational-education program.

The results will provide information on how well the existing course of study is preparing such students academically, Mr. Bottoms said. With this knowledge, he said, the academic and vocational educators developing the new programs will have a clearer picture of specific areas demanding special attention.

Subsequent annual assessments using the NAEP tests are planned for the next five years to indicate whether the new approaches are working.

"The SREB-State Consortium's effort to improve the general education of these students is perhaps the most important and ambitious undertaking in the vocational field for a great many years,'' Archie E. Lapointe, executive director of NAEP, said in a statement. "It may well pave the way for improvements throughout the nation.''

Mr. Lapointe said that NAEP will be measuring the educational progress of students in the model programs and comparing their performance to that of students enrolled in other vocational-education programs nationwide and elsewhere in the region.

Increased Requirements

Mr. Bottoms said the project was designed, in part, as a response to the stricter academic requirements adopted by states in recent years. Those mandates, he said, have left many students with little time to take vocational courses.

Members of the SREB, he explained, hope the project will yield courses that can count toward fulfilling the tougher academic requirements.

The project also is a response to the general belief that many of the students in vocational courses have lower skill levels, Mr. Bottoms said.

For example, a NAEP assessment of mathematics skills in eight Southern states last year showed that students enrolled in vocational programs scored lower than those enrolled in general or college-preparatory programs.

A major goal of the project, according to Mr. Bottoms, is to help students enrolled in vocational education realize that academic competencies--the ability to read and comprehend with ease, to calculate accurately, and to apply this knowledge to solving problems--are essential for success in today's rapidly changing workplace.

He cited statistics from the U.S. Education Department showing that students in vocational-education programs take about two fewer academic courses than do students following a college-preparatory curriculum.

Furthermore, he said, the mathematics, science, and English courses vocational students do take are usually general or basic in content.

He noted, for example, that only about 1 percent of such students take a high-school course in physics, yet "principles of physics form the foundation of much of today's modern technology.''

Monitoring Changes

Providing students with more sophisticated preparation would result in graduates of vocational programs who are able to continue learning in either the workplace or an education setting, Mr. Bottoms said.

The SREB plans to monitor closely over the next five years the curricular, instructional, and policy changes that pilot sites make and the effects those changes have on the academic qualifications of students.

The board will be active in disseminating that information to its member states and in sponsoring forums in the region during the project, Mr. Bottoms said.

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