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Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as Test Scores Loom Over School-to-Work Programs

Test Scores Loom Over School-to-Work Programs

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Washington

Advocates of urban school-to-work programs heard a sobering message at a recent conference held here by the Department of Education.

No matter how innovative the programs may be, they won't get much respect unless they help students score higher on standardized tests, said Patricia W. McNeil, the assistant secretary for the department's office of vocational and adult education.

Ms. McNeil's conclusion came out of her experience with the New Urban High Schools grant program, sponsored by her office. The program awarded $30,000 to each of five schools last year, and last month's conference was designed to showcase the schools' successes to the 400 urban educators who attended.

From the department's point of view, the schools are models partly because they successfully used school-to-work principles to bring about reform. School-to-work strategies include integrating academic and vocational education, placing students in internships, and increasing links between secondary schools and postsecondary schools.

Yet at least two of the New Urban High Schools are not considered models in their own communities.

"I thought, somewhat naively, if we showcased these schools, people would say, 'Wow, this is great. Let me find out about these schools, and make more like them,'" Ms. McNeil said.

But that was not the case, and the reason was poor student test scores, she said.

"The problem we're facing is that the most efficient--if not effective--instrument that most communities have for measuring success is the standardized tests," the assistant secretary said.

One of the New Urban High Schools, 1,865-student Herbert Hoover High School in San Diego, was named last year as one of the 20 lowest-performing schools in the 170-school San Diego district, partly because of poor performance on standardized tests.

Another of the selected schools, the Chicago Vocational Career Academy, is considered a "remediation school"--a step away from being on probation--by the 430,000-student Chicago district and a low-performing school by the Illinois state board of education.

Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, St. Louis Career Academy in St. Louis, and William H. Turner Technical Arts High School in Miami are the other New Urban High Schools.

Advised Ms. McNeil in her speech: "We've got to combine rigor and some kinds of accountability standards to show that what we're doing is not just being nice to these kids and providing a nurturing environment and a little bit of work experience."

Another speaker at the June 25-27 conference pointed to a new study as evidence that school-to-work strategies are successful.

The study shows that graduates of ProTech, a school-to-work program in the Boston public schools, were more likely to attend college, earn a degree, and receive higher wages than graduates who did not participate in the program.

"Young people who have well-structured experiences in the work world ... are entering postsecondary [schools] at higher rates," said Larry Rosenstock, the former project director for the New Urban High Schools program. He is now the president of Price Charities in La Jolla, Calif.

ProTech has served a total of 650 students from six schools since its creation in 1991. Participating students acquire 11 competencies through in-school and work-site learning. Those include the ability to communicate and understand information, and to identify and solve problems.

The study compares survey responses from 107 ProTech graduates with responses from 124 Boston high school graduates who weren't part of the program.

Some 78 percent of ProTech graduates attended college the year after finishing high school, compared with 72 percent in the comparison group, according to the survey. In addition, the average hourly wage of the ProTech graduates was 82 cents higher than for non-ProTech graduates.

The study's results were particularly striking for black students. Seventy-nine percent of black ProTech graduates attended college right after high school, compared with 53 percent of black students in the comparison group. Nationally, 51 percent of black students attend college right out of high school.

The study was produced by the Boston Private Industry Council and Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit group based in Boston.

--MARY ANN ZEHR

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 15

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