National education officials on Tuesday approved preliminary changes to the admission process to vocational high schools aimed at giving disadvantaged students a better chance of attendance.
The primary and secondary education council’s unanimous vote came after members and defenders critical the current criteria are unfair to students of color, low-income students, English learners and students with disabilities, depriving them of an important career path.
The proposed regulations, recommended by Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, would eliminate the current requirement that vocational training schools take into account the grades, attendance, disciplinary files and recommendations of guidance counselors. Instead, schools would be able to set their own admission criteria as long as these policies comply with state and federal laws, lead to student demographics “comparable” to school districts in their communities, do not refuse to disproportionately admitting students from marginalized groups and “promoting equitable access for all students”.
The settlement will be subject to public comment for two months before a final vote in June. They would come into effect for students entering ninth grade in the fall of 2022.
Civil rights organizations, which had called for a lottery system similar to those used by charter schools, have long criticized current admission standards as discriminatory. Data shows that students of color, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities have significantly lower acceptance rates than their peers.
The new regulation does not prescribe how schools are to judge applicants, but establishes some guidelines. For example, schools could no longer consider minor disciplinary or behavioral infractions. They would also be prohibited from using criteria that led to disproportionate rates of deny students because of their race, disability, language or income – unless they can demonstrate that there is no fairer option and that standards are essential to participation.
The Vocational Education Justice Coalition, which has long championed the interests of marginalized students, said it believed the only criteria that would meet this standard is “promotion to ninth grade,” meaning admission would no longer be competitive.
Riley also recommended that vocational schools be required to submit their admissions policies annually for state review. The state could order changes, including the implementation of a lottery system, if their admission decisions are considered unfair, he said.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, two Chelsea students criticized the current system, saying white teachers tend to judge students of color harshly, which can be reflected in disciplinary records and grades. They said that only 44% of students of color who apply to the Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational School in Wakefield are accepted, compared to 80 percent of white students.
“These figures show the result of a policy that was supposed to be fair but in reality it is not,” said Emily Menjivar, 15, a young leader of the nonprofit La Colaborativa. “It’s a policy that excludes children marked as ‘dangerous’ or ‘out of control’ and almost all of them are people of color.”
Chuang Cliff, the states senior associate commissioner for education options, said the students made a good point on disparities, but that the state should not take a one-size-fits-all approach.
“There is something going on in this regional school that I think needs to be looked at, but there are other urban regional schools that don’t have gaps for students of color,” he said. “There is also a danger of lowering the expectations of students of color in terms of meeting standards. “
Students should be able to tip the admissions process in their favor by showing a strong interest in a career path, Chuang said, something a lottery wouldn’t contemplate.
“You want to give college students the means to chart their course,” he said.
Educational justice The coalition, which includes politicians, civil rights organizations, education advocates, teachers’ unions and construction unions, said a lottery system would give every student equal access . They argue that vocational schools have become exclusive institutions for students primarily related to college, in part because of the pressure they felt to improve MCAS test scores and their academic reputation.
Many students who have academic difficulties but who are interested in trades will eventually drop out if they are not admitted to vocational schools, they said.
About half of vocational school graduates attend two- or four-year colleges within 12 to 16 months of graduation, according to state officials. About a third of graduates work in a field related to their professional specialization, and 11 percent are employed in an unrelated field.
The state recently analyzed waitlist data of 18,560 applicants vying for 10,600 ninth-grade places at 58 regional selective vocational schools. This analysis showed that schools only admitted half of English learners who applied, while 70 percent of fluent English speakers applied. Only 60 percent of applicants of color were admitted, compared to 73 percent of white applicants.
The Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators praised the draft regulation, saying it gave schools crucial autonomy to meet the different needs of the community.
Naomi Martin can be reached at [email protected]