In a sweeping change aimed at boosting access for underrepresented groups of students, Massachusetts vocational schools no longer will be required to consider grades, attendance, discipline records, and guidance counselor recommendations during their admissions process under new regulations approved by state education leaders on Tuesday.
Critics of the current admissions policy have said those four criteria tend to favor students already destined to go to college, while harming students of color, English language learners, and those with disabilities, depriving them of the opportunity to learn technical skills necessary in a rapidly evolving economy.
The change in the state’s admissions policy was the first in two decades and highlights a broader move across the country to provide disadvantaged students more equitable access to sought-after educational programs. In Boston, for example, the School Committee is weighing changes to the use of test scores in the admissions process to the city’s three exam schools.
The vote — approved by all Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members except parent representative Mary Ann Stewart, who voted present (a form of abstaining) — is aimed at making the student populations of vocational schools more closely reflect the demographics of their local school districts. A single set of “state-prescribed admissions criteria” is not best for students, families, or the schools, Commissioner Jeffrey Riley wrote in a memo to the board.
Vocational schools are expected to create “data-informed admissions policies,” Riley said Tuesday, although the board left it to each individual school to determine what those criteria would be. The new admissions plans also should receive approval every year by the vocational schools’ local boards.
The changes were recommended by Riley and preliminarily approved by the board in April. Though the new admissions policy will apply to the entering class of 2022, it also could affect transfer applications during the 2021-22 school year.
“It’s not just the vocational schools that are going to need to change,” Riley said. Local districts “need to allow the children to have greater access to the schools to see the vocational programming, to go on the tours, and that is something else that we want to do and ensure that we make sure that districts do.”
Riley also emphasized the change will grant Massachusetts education leaders the right to intervene if a school’s admissions policy is not compliant with state and federal laws. The state can order changes to the policy and could even require a lottery system.
“Last year, we gave the vocational schools an opportunity to make changes, and we didn’t feel that they had done a substantial enough job in doing that,” he said.
Prior to the vote, Stewart, the lone abstainer, voiced concern about the lack of clarity in the regulations concerning what would be considered an unfair practice and what would cause the board to step in and impose a lottery system.
“One of my concerns is whether the proposed regulations really sufficiently are clear about what the administrators are supposed to do,” she said, expressing concern that grades, while no longer mandated, still could be used in newly created data-informed policies that could hurt the admissions chances of English learners, students of color, and those with disabilities.
In a public comment period before the vote, state Senator John Cronin also urged the board to create clear regulations and standards for vocational schools. Without them, he said, the state is simply “punting on the hardest questions” surrounding the issue.
But giving administrators leeway to craft their own admissions policies acknowledges the complexity of the issue, Bradford L. Jackson, superintendent-director of Shawsheen Valley Technical High School, said in an interview after the meeting. A one-size-fits-all admissions policy doesn’t allow each technical school to consider its own shortcomings, he said.
At Shawsheen, which serves five communities north of Boston, English language learners make up fewer than 2 percent of the student body. In its communities, however, 8 percent of students are learning English. Jackson hasn’t decided exactly how Shawsheen will change its admissions policy, but determining where English language learners — and other underrepresented students — get lost will be part of the process, he said.
“This was the best solution to move us towards the goal” of a more diverse student body, Jackson said.
A group called the Vocational Education Justice Coalition said the admissions change doesn’t go far enough. Comprising politicians, advocates, civil rights organizations, and unions, the coalition has called the state’s vocational admissions policies “discriminatory” against students of color, economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.
Coalition leaders have urged the state to adopt a lottery system to distribute vocational school seats, rather than waiting until a school needs the intervention.
Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, outside the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden, about a dozen coalition members demonstrated with signs reading “Vocational schools are public schools” and “Equal opportunity for all.”
“Both [students’] lived experience as well as the research shows that discipline, grades, absences, interviews, counselor recommendations, these are all things that have been proven through decades of research, but also literally, all of these folks lived experience that are completely subject to bias,” said Anna Hadingham, youth organizational coordinator at coalition member La Colaborativa.
Coalition members also expressed disappointment that state leaders had not fully considered their recommendations in the changes.
“We’re troubled by the [regulation] because although it has some net positive, it has other lines that seems to allow them to continue their system, which is what caused the discrimination,” said Lew Finfer, special projects director of Massachusetts Communities Action Network, at the demonstration.
Demonstrators from the coalition were heckled by counterprotesters, who held signs against masking and vaccinating children, and shouted epithets, including “Learn English” and “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” One started a chant: “We’re not racist.”
Tuesday’s meeting — the board’s last regular meeting until September — was interrupted multiple times by the group of community members angry about a mask-wearing mandate that officials have already dropped for the 2021-22 school year. The board first took a brief recess when people in the room continued speaking over board members; once outside, protesters briefly pounded on windows while the meeting continued.
Although the mask mandate and other COVID-19 safety protocols have been relaxed, state education leaders plan to work with the Department of Public Health to determine whether any additional health and safety protocols need to be issued later this summer.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Lew Finfer’s role with the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. He is the special projects director.