'High Stakes' Exams Seen as Test for Voc. Ed.

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As the number of states adopting "high stakes" graduation exams continues to grow, so too does the debate over what the trend will mean for students in vocational education.

Some educators say more of those students, frustrated by the prospect of flunking paper-and-pencil tests they believe have no relevance to their chosen careers, will drop out of high school.

"We can't lose sight of the kids who are going to be hurt by [high-stakes tests]," said David Ferreira, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators. "You can't expect youngsters who devote half of their time on occupational skills to be assessed the same way as kids who are going on to college."

Others argue that all high school students, regardless of whether they're college-bound, need to be well-rounded, critical thinkers who can pass tests in the core academic areas before they graduate.

Patricia W. McNeil

"The movement toward making sure all students acquire strong academic content is a good one," said Patricia W. McNeil, the U.S. Department of Education's assistant secretary for vocational and adult education. "It is counterproductive for vocational educators to say, 'Our students should not be expected to meet the same academic standards as other students.'"

Single Test 'Unfair'?

Nineteen states currently have some form of exit exam for high school graduation, and another seven states plan to adopt one in the next few years.

While such exams were traditionally designed to assess basic skills, some vocational education officials are more concerned about the new generation of rigorous, high-stakes assessments that are tied to state standards.

Two states that are in the process of implementing standards-based assessments are New York and Massachusetts.

Beginning this year, all New York students will be required to pass the state regents' exam in English and less rigorous competency tests in mathematics, science, and social studies to graduate. Passing the regents' exams in math, history/government, and science will be required over the next two years.

State Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills has said the new requirements are appropriate assessments for all students and will go a long way in raising the status of vocational education.

But a state panel also is exploring the idea of creating a "regents technical diploma," an alternative assessment for students in career and technology programs.

Passing Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System standardized tests in English and mathematics will become a graduation requirement in the Bay State in 2003—a deadline that has some educators concerned about students in the state's 26 vocational and technical schools. According to an analysis of 1999 data by the Boston Globe, those students generally scored lower on the MCAS test than most of their peers for the second straight year.

Thomas Frawley

"The impact of high-stakes testing is significant," said Mr. Ferreira, who is also the superintendent of Old Colony Regional Vocational-Technical High School in Rochester, Mass. "All career and technical educators want students to be held accountable, but to have a single test to measure success, irrespective of all the learning styles that exist, is unfair."

But David P. Driscoll, Massachusetts' education commissioner, said in an interview that all students should be proficient in such core subjects as English and math. The MCAS test is based on 10th grade standards.

"The board of education has set a reasonable graduation requirement, and that standard should be applied to all students," Mr. Driscoll said.

Students in special and bilingual education, as well as those in vocational education, will have to pass the MCAS test to graduate.

In Texas, students have been required since 1990 to pass a graduation exam that is part of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills system. Students in career and technology programs initially performed worse on the exit exam than their peers, according to Ward McCain, the division director for career and technology education in the state.

Forty-one percent of Texas 10th graders in those programs passed the reading, writing, and math exams in 1994, compared with 50 percent of 10th graders overall.

But by last spring, vocational students and traditional students were passing the exams at the same rate—75 percent. A 10th grade competency level is required to pass.

Texas students in career and technology programs "are doing an exceptional job," Mr. McCain said. He noted that the number of students in such programs was up 20 percent this year.

Business Support

The National Association of Manufacturers, a prominent business group that has taken an active interest in education, supports the idea of requiring vocational education students to pass the same academic exams as other students.

"The bar has risen," said Phyllis Eisen, the executive director of the association's Center for Workforce Success. "Even the very entry-level worker needs a different type of skills today. A broad range of competencies is absolutely critical now."

Businesses are spending billions of dollars training workers on skills they should have learned in high school, she added.

"Whether you are in vocational programs or technical programs, you should have a strong background in academics," Ms. Eisen said.

Gene Bottoms, who directs High Schools That Work, an initiative run by the Southern Regional Education Board with the goal of improving academic achievement in career and technical education, agreed.

"We do not see vocational skills and a solid academic core as incongruent," said Mr. Bottoms, a former executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education and now a senior vice president at the SREB. "In the 21st century, one needs both. Employers want graduates who have a solid academic foundation who can read and synthesize information."

Mr. Bottoms' main concern with asking vocational students to read and do math at the same level as their peers is that states might usher in their graduation tests too quickly.

Some vocational educators argue that requiring more of their students would help counter the perception that such programs are for academic failures.

"Most states see this as an opportunity to dispel the myth that voc ed is second-class or inferior," said Kimberly A. Green, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Vocational Technical Education Consortium. "There will obviously be challenges, but that is true with all students, not just students in vocational education."

Others say that while they are not opposed to the concept of high-stakes exams, the tests should reflect the diversity of students' skills.

Thomas Frawley, the president of the Central New York State Technology Education Association, said a single graduation test does not take into account the varied ways in which students learn.

"The state assessments are primarily pencil-and-paper tests and follow semesters of exposure to teachers who equate 'different' with 'dumb,'" Mr. Frawley said. "Students should be both allowed and encouraged to pursue vocational or technology education and be evaluated in a more positive and functional manner.

"While well-intentioned,'' he continued, "the standards push is not dealing with technology education, technical education, and vocational education realistically."

Dan Hull, the president of the Center for Occupational Research and Development, a Waco, Texas-based nonprofit group that develops curriculum packages for teaching academics in a "real world" context, said that all students should be expected to measure up academically. But, he added, graduation tests should measure practical skills as well.

"We believe students can learn at high levels," Mr. Hull said. "My concern is how the tests are written. If they are written to only measure abstract understanding, that is a problem."

Vol. 19, Issue 21, Pages 1, 13

Published in Print: February 2, 2000, as 'High Stakes' Exams Seen as Test for Voc. Ed.
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