Career and technical education in New York State bears little resemblance to the last-chance “vocational” programs of the past, in which employment upon graduation was the intended goal. But insufficient results reporting and widespread misperceptions prevented state officials from establishing appropriate graduation policies or career pathways credentials.
SDP Fellow Christopher Leake investigated the breadth and depth of career and technical education across the state, visiting programs, interviewing educators and students, and gathering detailed data to better understand students’ academic performance and refute common myths about the purpose and rigor of their programs.
Leake’s review found that career and technical students did just about as well on high-school exit exams as their counterparts in traditional programs, and that supposed academic barriers did not prevent students from graduating. He also found that the outcomes data collected at the state level bore little resemblance to local data gathering and valued metrics for success. His analysis found that the state’s reporting system wasn’t sufficiently capturing enrollment, hampering their efforts to assess performance.
To Improve CTE Policy, Improve CTE Understanding
Amid a push to ensure high-school graduation requirements matched what students would need to know and do in college or on the job, officials in New York State wanted to know more about career and technical education (CTE). How rigorous were CTE programs, and how did their graduates do on industry-specific technical exams? How many students were employed after graduation?
SDP Fellow Christopher Leake was charged with enhancing the state’s understanding of these programs in order to inform graduation and career pathways policies. He engaged CTE leaders and immediately discovered that the questions themselves were based on an outdated, inaccurate understanding of the field, and so set out to update the agency’s understanding. In order to set the right metrics for high-quality CTE, state officials needed to know more about its students, programs, and purpose.
Unpacking Misperceptions, Gaining Insight
Leake dove into the state’s CTE data, surveyed CTE leaders, and visited programs across the state. He also compared state and local data-gathering practices, and analyzed graduates’ performance on exit exams to assess their academic performance at the end of high school.
CTE programs and students were far more engaged with traditional high-school programs that officials assumed, with students taking a few CTE classes to enhance college applications or explore a particular interest. Some programs were offered as a credential over and above a traditional high-school credential, while others were considered a safety net for students not expecting to enroll in college. And a fuzzy definition at the state level meant that New York did not have an accurate count of how many students were participating, because local programs counted students differently.
Leake also found misalignment between the state and local level in terms of metrics of success. New York State was looking to CTE Technical Assessments as a potential stand-in for academic exit exams, but local leaders considered them less important than industry certification exams that students take offsite. The results of those exams were often unavailable until after high school ends, however, making them a poor fit for graduation requirements.
Finally, Leake used his on-the-ground insights to analyze state and local data to explore common concerns about CTE students: first, that they are less likely to pass academic high-school exit exams at an advanced level, and second, that one test in particular places such a high barrier that CTE students should be held to a different graduation standard.
Leake found that broad comparisons were inaccurate, based in part on his insights from visiting the programs. CTE students complete their programs over and above standard academic requirements, an investment in time that makes also pursuing an advanced academic degree unlikely. Leake suggested a more fair comparison in students performance: average scores on exit exams between CTE and non-CTE students, an analysis which found little difference. He also reviewed performance data on the exit exams and that that a policy proposal to exempt CTE students from a supposed barrier test would have little impact, because only 1 percent of CTE students were barred from graduating from failing that test alone.
Leake’s SDP project revealed the extent to which the state’s understanding of CTE was incomplete, both in terms of keeping track of current students and crafting appropriate policies to support stronger program outcomes. He suggested improved data-collection techniques and ways to explore whether CTE students should also be held to academic graduation requirements. And his review raised important questions about whether the goal of workplace readiness, common among state officials but not among program leaders, was the right standard for state policy to assume.