Mass Education Commissioner recommends changes to vocational school admissions to boost fairness

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Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley has proposed changes to vocational and technical school admissions aimed at giving disadvantaged students a better chance to attend coveted schools.

The proposal, led for a preliminary vote on Tuesday by the State Council for Primary and Secondary Education, would remove the current requirement that selective schools take into account candidate grades, attendance, disciplinary records and recommendations from guidance counselors. Instead, schools would be allowed to set their own admission criteria, as long as those policies adhere to state and federal laws, lead to demographics that reflect school districts in their communities, do not disproportionately exclude students. marginalized groups and “promote equitable access for all students.

After more than a year of discussions with professional school leaders and civil rights groups, Riley said in a memo that “the application of a single set of state-mandated admission criteria is not in the best interests of students, families, and vocational schools and programs. “

“I think we can best address this complex problem by enabling schools and individual programs to establish policies that meet the needs of their home communities,” said Riley.

Civil rights organizations, which had called for a lottery system similar to those used by charter schools, have long criticized the current admission criteria as discriminating against students of color, low-income students. income, English learners and students with disabilities, depriving them of an important career path into the middle class. Data shows that these groups are all much less likely to be accepted into schools than their peers.

Meghan Corrigan worked in a construction technology course at the Blue Hills Regional Technical School in September. The school offers programs such as automotive technology, electrical work, cosmetology, and culinary arts. Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff

The new proposal does not prescribe how schools should judge applicants, although it does establish some safeguards. For example, schools could no longer take into account minor breaches of discipline or candidate behavior. Nor could they use criteria that lead to disproportionate exclusion rates of students based on their race, disability, language or income – unless schools can demonstrate that it does not. There is no other fairer option and that criteria are essential for participation. in the program.

“This is a high standard that [we] I think few criteria could meet other than promotion to ninth grade, ”said Dan French, of Citizens for Public Education, speaking on behalf of a coalition of groups fighting for change.

Riley also recommended that vocational schools submit their admissions policies annually for state review. The state could order changes, including the implementation of a lottery system, if admissions are found to be unfair, he said.

The proposal follows years of advocacy by the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, whose members include politicians, civil rights organizations, education advocates, teachers’ unions and construction unions. The coalition said a lottery system would give every student equal access to public vocational schools, which they say have become exclusive institutions for college students, in part because of the pressure schools felt to improve. MCAS standardized test results and their academic reputation.

Many students interested in the trades, but with less impressive academic records, often flounder through regular high schools and end up dropping out, they say.

About half of vocational school graduates were in two or four-year colleges 12 to 16 months after graduating, state officials said. But they said that did not mean that all these students did not belong to a vocational school; a number of professional fields, such as nursing, require higher education. About a third of graduates were working in a field related to their vocational school‘s major, and 11% were working in an unrelated field.

In response to growing concerns about fairness, the state recently analyzed waitlist data for 18,560 vying candidates for 10,600 ninth graders. places in 58 selective regional vocational schools. This analysis appeared to support the coalition’s concerns, showing that voice technology schools admitted only half of the English learners who applied, while 70 percent of fluent English speakers were admitted. Only 60 percent of applicants of color got places, compared to 73 percent of white applicants.

The coalition said the proposal was an important step, although its members fear that the flexibility of school districts could lead to the adoption of problematic policies with little state oversight.

“This will require continued proactive review on the part of the [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] and action against any new admissions policies submitted by individual schools if they attempt to retain certain aspects of the current discriminatory ranking systems, ”said Jack Livramento, United Interfaith Action member of New Bedford and Fall River, as well as the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. .

The Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators welcomed the proposal, saying it gave schools crucial autonomy to meet the diverse needs of the community.

Vocational and technical schools strive to ensure that all students who wish to take their programs have “equal access and opportunity to do so,” said Maureen Lynch, association president-elect and superintendent of Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill.

“Our members have worked hard to share and discuss best practices for admissions policies that are equitable and that promote diversity and inclusion,” added Lynch.

If approved, the draft regulation will be subject to public comment for two months before a final vote in June.

Naomi Martin can be reached at [email protected]

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