A COALITION OF groups pushing for changes to the admissions policies at Massachusetts vocational technical high schools is sounding the alarm on an issue that got sidetracked by the pandemic, calling on state officials to take action on reforms that the organizations say are an urgent matter of social justice and education equity.

Admission procedures at the state’s 37 vocational high schools have become a contentious issue, with municipal leaders and other advocates calling for changes in state regulations that allow the schools to use selective entry standards to enroll students. They say vocational schools, which once provided an alternate pathway for high school students more oriented toward hands-on trades than four-year college, have become the preferred route for higher-achieving college-bound students in some communities. As a result, they say, the schools’ competitive admission systems have locked out lots of minority students, English language learners, and those from lower-income households — the very groups that might benefit the most from a voc-tech education that can put students on track for decent-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree. 

State education commissioner Jeff Riley signaled last fall that he intended to recommend changes to address the concerns, but his plan to propose reforms by the spring of this year got upended by the pandemic, which has consumed much of the attention of state education officials. But with no end to the pandemic in sight, advocates say the issue should not be put off any longer.

“We can’t just let it slide forever,” said Lew Finfer of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, which is part of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, a group of community organizations, civil rights groups, and labor unions whose members are  scheduled to address the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at its monthly meeting on Tuesday. 

Finfer said advocates have been meeting with state education officials for three years to press for changes to the admissions systems, and he said any further delay will mean another year of policies that unfairly harm English language learners and poor and minority students. “Fewer African American, Latino, and low-income students are getting in because of this ranking system,” said Finfer, who called it “unfair and inappropriate” for public high schools to select students that way.

Most vocational high schools use a combined score that considers middle school grades, attendance, and a student’s discipline record in determining admissions. Some also weigh a guidance counselor’s recommendation.

The coalition pressing for change is urging the state to instead adopt a system using a lottery to determine voc-school admissions. The groups say the state could establish “gating criteria” to determine eligibility to enter the lottery, including a requirement that students successfully passed 8th grade and a ban on those with the most serious disciplinary infractions and a record of chronic absenteeism. 

Students at New Bedford’s high-performing regional vocational technical high school. (Photograph by Mark Ostow)

The transformation of voc-tech schools, once derided as “dumping grounds” for low-achieving students, coincided with the state’s adoption of new standards for all students under the 1993 Education Reform Act. With vocational schools judged not only on their technical programs but on student MCAS scores, they redoubled their focus on academics. State regulations that allowed them screen applicants also became a way to ensure better MCAS performance. Over time, many began notching higher achievement scores than traditional high schools, and voc-tech schools have become the preferred option for many middle-class families over struggling urban district high schools.

There are striking demographic differences between voc-tech schools and traditional district high schools in some communities. At Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School, for example, just 0.2 percent of students are English language learners compared with 9.2 percent of students at Milford High School, according to data compiled by the coalition. Low-income students make up 9.8 percent of students at the voc-tech schools compared with 27.5 percent of those at Milford High.

At Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, 2.6 percent of students are black compared with 8.6 percent of those at the district’s Durfee High School. Hispanic students account for 11.5 percent of Diman’s population but 26 percent at Durfee, while the figures for English language learners at the two schools are 1.6 percent and 14.7 percent, respectively. 

Last November, Riley wrote to leaders of six vocational-technical schools, including Blackstone Valley and Diman, flagging what he called “enrollment discrepancies” between their demographic make-up and that of the high schools in the communities they draw from. Riley said he planned to propose changes in the admissions regulations, but urged the six schools to “voluntarily enact changes” that he would consider in making his recommendations.

The school leaders wrote back to Riley in early February, but proposed either few specific changes or limited modifications to admission policies, such as weighting As and Bs the same in calculating an applicant’s middle school grades. 

Several of the schools took issue with the charge that they are denying seats to underserved populations and raised a longstanding complaint of voc-tech schools — that they are blocked by local school districts from making presentations to middle school students because the districts are trying to prevent loss of students to vocational schools. James O’Brien, superintendent of the Greater New Bedford  Regional Vocational Technical High School, wrote that the school’s lower enrollment of English language learners is a result of the lower number of such students from New Bedford who apply for seats. That is “not because of the application and acceptance process,” he wrote to Riley, “but rather because they are simply not allowed to learn about vocational technical education opportunities during the school day.” O’Brien said the district has for many years not allowed the voc-tech school to make presentations at its middle schools.

Of the state’s 37 voc-tech high schools, 28, including New Bedford voc-tech, operate essentially as their own regional school district, independent from the local district school systems they draw from.

Finfer said voc school admission policies are another area where the current reckoning with racial justice issues demands change. While higher-achieving students who would go on to college regardless of where they went to high school are easily able to land voc-tech seats, he said the policy shuts out lots of minority and lower-income students for whom a voc-tech education could open the door to jobs paying $40,000 or $50,000 a year, even without further formal education. Without that opportunity, he said, many who don’t have the option to go to college will be “stuck in a low-wage job.” 

“Many students for whom these schools were envisioned as a pathway to a meaningful, economically rewarding career have been denied access,” said Barbara Fields of the Black Educators’ Alliance, in written remarks she plans to deliver at Tuesday’s board meeting. “The students who may need them the most are systematically shut out as the number of students from middle income households and college bound students increase.”

Tomorrow’s planned testimony by members of the coalition meeting follows a letter sent in January to Riley and Education Secretary Jim Peyser by 24 Massachusetts mayors also calling for a revamping of voc-tech school admissions.

The mayors raised the specter of litigation if the state doesn’t take action.

“The data sketch a clear roadmap for litigation, and we are concerned that as compelling as the case may be, a judicial solution will take significant time, be divisive, and may not be tailored to the needs of students,” they wrote. “We believe that [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education” is in a unique position to solve this matter, not with half-measures, but by fundamentally reworking the admissions policy to enable vocational and comprehensive schools alike to offer an education that best fits the needs and aspirations of every student.”