College & Workforce Readiness

Vocational Students Lag In Achievement, Report Says

By Sean Cavanagh — July 14, 2004 3 min read

Vocational education students today are far more likely to enroll in academically demanding classes than they were a decade ago, though they continue to lag behind their peers in test scores, completing high school, and going to college, a federal report shows.

The National Assessment of Vocational Education Final Report to Congress is available from the U.S. Department of Education. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The National Assessment of Vocational Education, an independent report mandated by Congress, also concludes that career and technical programs still fall short in areas such as teacher quality.

In addition, the federal government’s many aims for vocational students—from improved academic achievement and college-going rates to stronger technical skills—contribute to a “lack of clarity” over the program’s goals, the study concludes.

The report, which was sent to congressional leaders late last month, says that the proportion of vocational students taking a core high school academic curriculum in English, mathematics, and science had jumped to 51 percent in 2000 from 18.5 percent in 1990.

Vocational students “have been increasing the number and rigor of the courses they are taking,” said Marsha Silverberg, the project director of the vocational education assessment, which took about three years to complete. “But they’re still behind students who don’t take much vocational education in terms of their academic achievement.”

While students who took career-oriented classes showed strong earning potential, they made minimal strides on test scores and high school graduation and college-going rates, the report says.

Hans Meeder, the U.S. Department of Education’s deputy assistant secretary for vocational education, said he was pleased by signs that vocational students are taking more rigorous courses.

But he noted that the study showed that only 29 percent of 12th grade vocational students were deemed proficient in reading on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, and only 9 percent were proficient in mathematics. By contrast, 44 percent of nonvocational students were proficient in reading; 17 percent were proficient in mathematics.

Teacher Skill Shortage

The national assessment, also known as NAVE, is the fourth such study of vocational education completed since 1980 and the first since 1994. It reviews the status of vocational education and the impact of the Perkins Act of 1998, the federal law that authorizes the $1.3 billion federal investment in career-oriented classes and training.

While the report is undertaken by employees of the policy and program studies service office within the Department of Education, Congress mandates that the NAVE study be conducted independently, with conclusions that are the researchers’ own.

The study was released about two months after the Bush administration unveiled its blueprint for renewal of the Perkins Act, a plan that calls for high schools to raise their academic standards and form stronger partnerships with colleges, apprenticeships, and other programs. The NAVE study warns that the federal vocational program offers a “conflicted picture” of priorities to students and teachers, in calling for greater academic achievement, high school completion and college-going rates, at the same time it demands improved technical skill. “Without a clearer focus for the federal investment … around which to rally the commitment” of school officials, the report says, “ongoing program progress in any particular direction is less certain.”

But Mr. Meeder said vocational programs must be both flexible and demanding enough to remain relevant to today’s workforce. He also did not believe the NAVE report’s findings about vocational students taking tougher courses contradicted the administration’s view that such students need to be pushed harder academically.

The administration’s Perkins proposal and the No Child Left Behind Act are both aimed at making sure that vocational students were challenged throughout the K-12 pipeline, he said. “We have to help students have a set of academic competencies, and other competencies, to remain successful,” Mr. Meeder said.

The report also notes that vocational teachers on average scored worse in reading, writing, and mathematics on state- licensure tests than did their colleagues. In addition, almost 9 percent of high school vocational teachers do not hold a bachelor’s degree; less than 1 percent of nonvocational instructors lack that credential, according to recent estimates.

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Vocational Students Lag In Achievement, Report Says

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