AFTER YEARS OF complaints from city officials and urban school superintendents that vocational-technical schools are turning away some of the students who might benefit most from their hands-on learning programs, state education officials are reviewing the selective admission standards used by vocational schools that draw higher-performing students. Education commissioner Jeff Riley is expected to propose changes that could dramatically alter voc-tech admission policies, which have become a flashpoint for tension across the state, particularly in urban areas.

For decades, vocational-technical schools were regarded as second-class outposts in the public school system, often derided as “dumping grounds” for students who weren’t cutting it in traditional, academic-focused high schools. But that began to change with passage of the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act. With all students required to get over the MCAS passing bar to graduate from high school, the voc-techs upped their game, redoubling their focus on academics and developing impressive programs that combined top-notch traditional course offerings with well-resourced hands-on vocational learning.

More than two decades later, voc-tech schools have turned their past reputation on its head. In many parts of Massachusetts, especially the state’s gateway cities, high-achieving students now opt for regional vocational schools over their local district high school. 

And there’s the rub.

Operating under state regulations that allow them to use selective admission criteria in filling seats, voc-tech schools are drawing top students, many of whom don’t head into trade occupations after high school but instead go on to four-year colleges. In the meantime, say critics of current policy, kids who might struggle in a traditional high school setting but could thrive at a vocational school are being shut out of that opportunity. 

A 2016 report from Northeastern University described this as a “peculiar paradox” now characterizing Massachusetts vocational education. “Some still think that these schools are reserved for students who cannot succeed in the state’s comprehensive high schools,” said the report. But vocational schools are, in fact, now in such demand, the report said, that they are leaving behind students “with lackluster academic or disciplinary records, often with fewer family resources, who have historically benefitted the most from career vocational education, and who now must compete for vocational school slots with better-prepared students—many of whom are college-bound.”

In November, Riley flagged six of the state’s 37 vocational schools where the state education department highlighted “enrollment discrepancies” between their demographic make-up and that of the traditional high schools in the districts they serve. In letters to the six schools, Riley asked them to work with the state education department to “identify ways that your district can address any policies or practices — including those related to admissions, recruitment, and retention — that may be impacting equitable student access to the strong vocational technical programs your school offers, and to voluntarily enact changes.” 

One key to the tension is the fact that 28 of the state’s 37 vocational schools operate essentially as their own regional school district, independent from the local district school systems they draw from.

Leaders of the six schools targeted by the state, five of which are independent regional voc-techs, plan to respond to Riley by the end of this week with their plans for any changes to admission policies. 

Riley said he’ll consider the voluntary steps taken by the six schools as he crafts recommendations for overall changes to the state regulations governing vocational school admission policy.

In the meantime, a group of 24 Massachusetts mayors is urging Riley to recommend a complete overhaul of the admissions regulations that eliminates scoring applicants based on their middle school academic record, attendance, and disciplinary record. The mayors say admissions should be done using a lottery — the same process the state requires for charter schools that have more applicants than available seats. In a letter sent last week to Riley and education secretary Jim Peyser, the mayors, joined by Massachusetts Municipal Association executive director Geoffrey Beckwith, say “no scoring system can be fashioned that would not leave behind students who perform less well in a mainstream classroom, but who may have an aptitude for and interest in vocational training.”

“Indeed,” the letter goes on to say, “a case could be made that an applicant’s ability to benefit from a vocational education is inversely related to his or her academic and attendance records. There are no shortage of examples of students who, having struggled in mainstream classrooms in their middle school years, thrive in vocational high schools because the opportunity to learn a trade prompts them to embrace school as they had not before.”

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell: “I think the vocational school admissions policy raises a significant civil rights issue.” (Photo by Mark Ostow)

“To my mind, it’s all unfair,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, president of the Massachusetts Mayors’ Association, who drafted the letter and has long objected to vocational school admission practices. “I don’t use the term lightly, but I think the vocational school admissions policy raises a significant civil rights issue,” he said.

Mitchell has been in a long-running conflict over admission policies with Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School, one of the six schools targeted by Riley in November because of its enrollment demographics.  

The New Bedford vocational school uses a 100-point scoring system for admissions, with 30 points each for middle school grades, attendance, and disciplinary record, and 10 points possible based on a guidance counselor recommendation.

“You have a policy in place that has been jealously guarded by folks who want to maintain the status quo, and the result is the exclusion of many students who could well benefit from a vocational education,” said Mitchell.

There are big differences in various demographic variables between New Bedford voc-tech and New Bedford High School. White student enrollment at the vocational school is nearly twice the rate of New Bedford High School. There is also a big difference in the enrollment of low-income students, with that population accounting for 39 percent of students at the vocational school and 66 percent at New Bedford High School. The biggest disparity is for English language learners, who represent 32 percent of the New Bedford High School population but just 3 percent of voc-tech school enrollment. 

For an in-depth look by CommonWealth at the issue in 2017, Mitchell also provided data showing much higher scores on the PARCC test, which was then be studied as a possible replacement for MCAS, among New Bedford middle school students admitted to the voc-tech school compared with those who ended up at New Bedford High School. 

James O’Brien, superintendent of the New Bedford voc-tech school, said the biggest obstacle to greater diversity in his school population is the New Bedford school system. “The number one problem is access into the middle schools,” he said. O’Brien said the district once allowed the vocational school to make presentations to students to let them know about the voc-tech option, but has shut out the vocational school in recent years. As a result, he said, the English language learner population “does not have a sense of awareness of what our school is all about.”

Kevin Farr, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, which represents vocational school leaders across the state, said eliminating the entrance scoring system in favor of a lottery would be a bad idea. “You really have to have the drive and have some ability to work independently around some dangerous equipment,” he said of the kind of student who will succeed at vocational schools.

The letter from the mayors said they would support to some conditions on students entering a lottery for a vocational school seat, including that they successfully complete 8th grade, be without a record of “serious discipline” issues, and not have a history of chronic absenteeism.

Riley, the state education commissioner, has said he’ll issue recommendations on changes to the regulations governing vocational school admission policy sometime this spring. 

Lew Finfer, the director of Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a network of faith-based groups that has been advocating for expanded access to vocational education, said there’s no justification for using academic records to rank applicants “as if these are private schools.” He said selective admission policies at vocational schools are especially out of step with the sweeping state education funding bill passed last year, which was driven by calls to “level the playing field” for students across the state with the greatest need.