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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Mass. education commissioner recommends vocational school admissions changes to boost fairness

Students passed through a hallway at Blue Hills Regional Technical School.
Students passed through a hallway at Blue Hills Regional Technical School.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

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Massachusetts’ education commissioner, Jeff Riley, has proposed changes to vocational-technical school admissions aimed at giving disadvantaged students a better shot at attending the coveted schools.

The proposal, headed for a preliminary vote Tuesday by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, would erase the current requirement that selective schools consider applicants’ grades, attendance, discipline records, and guidance counselor recommendations. Instead, the schools would be allowed to set their own criteria for admissions, as long as those policies follow state and federal laws, lead to demographics reflective of their communities’ school districts, don’t disproportionately exclude marginalized groups, and “promote equitable access for all students.”

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

“I believe we can best address this complex issue by allowing individual schools and programs to set policies that respond to the needs of their sending communities,” Riley said.

Civil rights organizations, which had called for a lottery system similar to those used by charter schools, have long criticized the current admissions criteria as being discriminatory against students of color, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities, depriving them of an important career pathway to the middle class. Data show these groups all have far lower chances of being accepted to the schools than their peers.

Meghan Corrigan worked in a construction-technology class at Blue Hills Regional Technical School in September. The school offers programs such as automotive technology, electrical work, cosmetology, and culinary arts.
Meghan Corrigan worked in a construction-technology class at 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 doesn’t prescribe how schools should judge applicants, though it sets some guardrails. For example, schools could no longer consider applicants’ minor disciplinary or behavioral infractions. They also couldn’t use any criteria that lead to disproportionate rates of exclusion of students based on their race, disability status, language, or income — unless the schools can demonstrate that there’s no other option that’s fairer, and the criteria is essential for participation in the program.

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

Riley also recommended that vocational schools have to submit their admissions policies each year for review by the state. The state could order changes, including implementing 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 trade unions. The coalition said a lottery system would give every student equal access to the public vocational schools, which they said have become exclusive institutions for college-bound students in part due to pressure the schools felt to boost MCAS standardized test scores and their academic reputations.

Many students interested in trades, but who have less impressive academic records, often flounder in 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 have said. But they said that doesn’t mean all those students didn’t belong in a vocational school; a number of vocational fields, like nursing, require higher education. About one-third of graduates were working in a field related to their vocational school major, and 11 percent were employed in an unrelated field.

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In response to the growing equity concerns, the state recently analyzed wait list data for 18,560 applicants vying for 10,600 ninth-grade seats at 58 selective regional vocational schools. That analysis seemed to support the coalition’s concerns, showing voc-tech schools admitted just half of English learners who applied, while 70 percent of fluent English speakers won admission. Only 60 percent of applicants of color got slots, compared to 73 percent of white applicants.

The coalition said the proposal was an important step, though its members worried that the flexibility for school districts could lead to problematic policies being adopted with little oversight by the state.

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

The Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators praised the proposal, saying it offered schools crucial autonomy to respond to different community needs.

The career and technical education schools are focused on ensuring that all students who want to attend their programs have “equal access and the opportunity to do so,” said Maureen Lynch, the association’s president-elect and superintendent of Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill.

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

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


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.