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Mass. plans to update adult education

Additional focus on job training, college

Massachusetts education officials are planning to retool adult basic-education programs to focus more on preparing students for college or further job training, instead of simply passing high school equivalency exams.

More than 20,000 adults across the state enroll in adult education programs annually with the goal of building a better life for themselves or their families.

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But after earning a high school equivalency diploma, many of them discover that they still are not academically ready for college or lack the skills for decent-paying jobs.

The effort would lead to increased instructional intensity, more academic and career advising, and a curriculum geared toward college and career readiness, including courses in specialized areas of interest, education officials said.

“We think it is important for the programs to be aware of what is necessary for someone to be ready for college or a career,’’ Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview. “If, ultimately, adults in the programs are not prepared for college or a career, their life choices are limited.’’

Chester discussed the changes Monday with the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The emphasis on college and career readiness would bring adult basic education in line with the mission of elementary, middle, and high schools, which is to prepare students for postsecondary education or further job training, to compete in a global economy, and to be civically engaged in their communities.

‘If, ultimately, adults in the programs are not prepared for college or a career, their life choices are limited.’

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Adult education is often overlooked in the K-12 system, but it provides a critical second chance for the thousands of students who quit high school every year and later regret they gave up on a high school diploma.

The changes are planned come as Governor Deval Patrick is trying to bolster the technical training of the state’s labor market so more workers are eligible to fill thousands of job vacancies, many of which require credentials beyond a high school diploma.

A key part of Patrick’s proposal would have community colleges focus more on workforce development.

Many adults who complete education programs ultimately land at community colleges, but many experience difficulties in getting through.

“For many years, the end goal for adult learners was a GED, the nationally recognized high school equivalency credential,’’ Chester wrote in a memorandum to the state board March 9, in preparation for Monday’s meeting. “We now know that a GED, in and of itself, is not enough to move out of poverty and into a job with family-sustaining wages.’’

Massachusetts uses a fragmented network of providers to deliver adult education classes, relying on contracts with local school districts, community colleges, libraries, community-based organizations, and correctional facilities scattered across 87 cities and towns statewide.

The state is in the process of renewing contracts with providers, creating an opportunity to make changes.

Demand is high for these programs, with more than 16,000 adults on waiting lists.

For decades, many adult education programs have primarily focused on one goal: Preparing students to pass a battery of exams necessary to earn a general equivalency diploma.

It can be a daunting and time-consuming task.

Under Massachusetts regulations, students pursuing a GED have just one year from the time they take their first exam to pass all five tests.

Students are tested in writing, reading, social studies, science, and math.

Several programs have also expanded their mission through the years with the growth of the state’s immigrant population, offering courses that teach English.

Providers interviewed said they welcome the new focus.

“I think it’s fantastic, and, in many ways, it’s overdue,’’ said Jerry Rubin, president and chief executive officer of Jewish Vocational Service, a nonprofit education, training, and employment program in Boston. “Over the last decade, the value of a high school equivalency diploma, while still important, has declined relative to a certificate or degree, and adult education has to change to reflect that.’’

Jewish Vocational Service has already embraced the shift in philosophy for adult education. Last year it increased the rigor of its academic programs for adults earning high school equivalency diplomas so they are better prepared for postsecondary education or the job market.

In renewing contracts, the state will examine each provider’s track record with students, looking at attendance, pre- and posttest rates, learning gains, and achievement of goals among students, such as earning a high school credential, getting a job, or entering college.

Recommendations for renewal are expected to be completed by early May. Contracts are paid with $27.7 million in state funds and $10.2 million in federal money, limiting the number of adults that can be served.

In Boston, the Mayor’s Office of Jobs & Community Services will be among those making decisions about which contracts to renew in the city, and it supports the stronger emphasis on college and career readiness.

“We definitely think it is the right thing to do,’’ said Conny Doty, director of the office. “For many individuals in the classroom, their goal is to improve their ability to earn a better paycheck.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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