Time to end discrimination in vocational school admissions

We're locking out some of the students who would benefit the most from hands-on education

CAREER VOCATIONAL-TECHNICAL education is a powerful tool that can provide students desiring to enter the workforce with a path to high-wage, high-skill professions and the knowledge, critical thinking, and transferable skills to adapt to changing labor markets. The unique hands-on, project-based learning model utilized in CVTE can also catalyze entrance into post-secondary education, particularly for those students who may have struggled in and disengaged from the traditional academic environment and who have perhaps never considered admission to college realistic or attainable.

The sad, destructive irony, however, is that the Commonwealth continues to systematically screen out the very students who often have fared least well in traditional academic classrooms and stand to benefit most from CVTE’s active learning methodologies for integrating strong academics.  

From the early 2000s onward, CVTE schools and programs have rank ordered and selectively admitted students based on grades, attendance, discipline (along with recommendations and interviews) – factors on which students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English learners throughout Massachusetts, as in other states, disproportionately perform less well.

Consider, for instance, data concerning admission to CVTE schools and programs for the 2021-22 school year. All 26 regional technical and agricultural schools with more applicants than seats rejected at least two groups – students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English learners – at disproportionately higher rates than their comparison peers. Eleven of those schools rejected three of four groups and 10 rejected all four groups at disproportionately higher rates. Even these disparities capture only a portion of the exclusionary impact of the criteria, which also includes the students who fail to apply because they or their parents, teachers, and counselors believe, with good reason, that they would be rejected. 

In the spring of 2021 Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and its board had the opportunity to promulgate new admissions regulations and dismantle the Commonwealth’s system under which decades of students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English learners had been disproportionately and unjustifiably excluded from CVTE. Unfortunately, the new regulations failed to prohibit the consideration of grades, attendance, discipline, recommendations, and interviews and the practice of rank ordering.

Unsurprisingly, the system remained intact and CVTE schools and programs reacted accordingly, with 27 of the Commonwealth’s 28 regional technical and agricultural schools continuing to use selective admission and rank order students based on grades (25), attendance (27), discipline (27), recommendations (24), and interviews (21). The single outlier, Assabet Valley Regional Technical, instituted a lottery. These “new” policies are already being used to select the students who will attend CVTE schools and programs for the 2022-2023 school year.  

The continued adoption and acceptance of admissions policies utilizing these known discriminatory criteria is in clear conflict with a federal civil rights standard that provides CVTE schools and programs may not use “criteria that have the effect of disproportionately excluding persons on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or [disability]” unless they “demonstrate that such criteria have been validated as essential to participation…and that alternative equally valid criteria that do not have such a disproportionate adverse effect are unavailable.” The new regulations repeat this standard, which has been in effect since 1979 but ignored, now as before (just as the prior regulation’s language limiting the use of selective criteria to solely determine whether students had the ability to benefit from CVTE).

First, schools have provided no demonstration that the use of middle school grades, attendance records, and disciplinary records have been validated as essential to participation before adopting them as admissions criteria, despite their disproportionate impact. Second, for students who have struggled in elementary and middle school but are promoted and deemed ready for high school, failure to thrive within the traditional academic structure of their middle school, and its manifestation in their grades, attendance, or discipline records, provides insufficient basis for concluding that they lack what is essential for participation in a very different high school CVTE environment. (And that should be even more obvious for those who spent their middle-school years under the pandemic.) Third, even if some minimum criteria beyond promotion could be demonstrated as essential to participation in CVTE, rank ordering excludes students not because they lack that essential characteristic but solely because other students have higher scores. 

Thus, the entire edifice on which the admissions policies have been built is a failure, not just something that needs a little tweaking or targeted intervention or only denies equal educational opportunities in some outlier schools. This recognition is not a matter of lowering academic expectations for the outcomes of CVTE programs. What is not acceptable is for public schools to attain those outcomes by discriminating and accepting only the students already closest to achieving them. 

The lack of substantive changes to vocational-technical admissions policies will continue to result in discrimination against students of color, low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. Compounding equity concerns, industry leaders across the Commonwealth continue to warn of the critical shortage of skilled trade workers entering regional job markets as more vocational school graduates pursue four-year college degrees. The use of selective criteria needlessly prevents students from accessing high paying trade jobs, exacerbates the labor shortage, and excludes them from a nontraditional learning environment where they may encounter more academic success.  

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Meet the Author
The Legislature has an opportunity to ensure every student in the Commonwealth promoted and deemed ready for high school who wants to attend these public schools has an equal chance of getting in. As part of an economic development bill this summer, the Legislature should include language to prohibit these discriminatory policies by changing vocational-technical school admissions policy to mandate a blind admissions lottery.

With this change, the Commonwealth has an opportunity to spur social mobility and equitable educational opportunities. Teenagers from poor and working-class families cannot continue to be shut out from programs to learn a skilled trade and gain a pathway to the middle class.  

John Cronin is a Democratic state senator representing 11 cities and towns in North Central Massachusetts, including the Gateways Cities of Fitchburg and Leominster.  Paul Weckstein is co-director and Sky Kochenour is a staff attorney at the Center for Law and Education, which works to make the right to high-quality education a reality for all students, and particularly those from low-income families.