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Vocational Course Taking and Achievement: An Analysis of High School Transcripts and 1990 NAEP Assessment


This report describes the relationship between vocational course taking among 1990 public high school graduates and their academic achievement on the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It draws upon two data sets: the 1990 NAEP grade 12 assessments, and the 1990 High School Transcript Study (HSTS), which contains transcript data for a nationally representative sample of 1990 graduates of high schools that were also sampled for the 1990 NAEP. The report focuses primarily on relationships between vocational course taking and performance on the NAEP math assessment, but these relationships generally hold for the reading and science assessments as well. Relationships between course taking and NAEP scores are also very briefly examined by selected student background characteristics (parents educational attainment and race ethnicity) to illustrate some unique features of the relationship between course taking and achievement and to aid in the interpretation of these data. Interested readers can explore the relationships described in this report in greater detail by referring to the tables in appendix A.

The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990 (hereafter referred to as the 1990 Perkins Act) calls upon schools receiving federal vocational education funds to use these funds in programs that integrate academic and vocational education. This provision reflected recommendations made by the 1989 National Assessment of Vocational Education (NAVE), which found that fewer than one-half of all students who both participated in secondary vocational education and received no postsecondary education used their occupationally specific training in their jobs (Boesel et al. 1994). Because occupationally-specific training is of little benefit to students when they do not find related employment, the 1989 NAVE advocated the integration of academic and vocational education so that students would develop broadly applicable academic skills while they were developing their more occupationally-specific skills.

The effective date of the 1990 Perkins Act was July 1, 1991. Data from the 1990 NAEP cannot be used to evaluate the results of this legislation since the assessment preceded the date the legislation went into effect. The NAEP data can, however, provide a useful baseline of the academic achievement of students participating in vocational education before the implementation of the legislation. In fact, because Congress was interested in the academic skills of students participating in vocational education, Section 421(h) of the 1990 Perkins Act mandates that data from NAEP be reported on students participating in vocational education.

While the relationship between vocational education and academic achievement is important, there are other outcomes related to vocational education, such as improved labor Market outcomes and persistence in school. Vocational education has been shown to be positively associated with higher wages when students concentrate their course taking in a vocational field and work in their field of concentration (Boesel et al. 1994). Other analyses have indicated that greater vocational course taking is associated with lower dropout rates (Rasinski 1994). This report generally documents a negative association between course taking and NAEP achievement, but since the development of academic skills has not traditionally been the goal of vocational education, it would be wrong to draw conclusions about the overall effectiveness of vocational education based on the NAEP data alone.

Since NAEP is a cross-sectional study, causal inferences about the effects of vocational education on academic achievement cannot be drawn. The effects of course taking cannot be disentangled from those of prior achievement or ability, because NAEP only records achievement at a single point in time. Indeed, evidence indicates that vocational course taking in high school is strongly associated with prior academic achievement. In a study of curriculum assignments in three urban comprehensive high schools, researchers found that many vocational education courses were viewed as a dumping ground for low ability students and students with behavioral problems (Selvin et al. 1990; Oakes et al. 1992). Detailed analyses of transcript information from these schools revealed a negative association between prior achievement and concentrated vocational course taking. The authors concluded that:

. . . concentrated vocational education coursetaking was largely, but not entirely, reserved for the least academically able students in the school, as measured by their scores on standardized achievement tests. On average, as achievement scores decreased, the likelihood of taking a concentration of vocational courses increased (Oakes et al. 1992, 60).

The pattern of vocational concentration was also related to characteristics other than prior achievement. The study found that within schools, students of different socioeconomic and racial ethnic backgrounds but comparable achievement levels varied in the extent to which they concentrated in vocational education, with white students being the most likely to concentrate in vocational education, followed by Hispanic then black students, and Asian students being the least likely to do so. Furthermore, the proportion of relatively high achieving students participating in vocational education decreased during the 1980s (Boesel et al. 1994), so the relationship between vocational education and academic achievement on assessments such as NAEP might be considerably different compared to what it was a decade ago.

In order to draw conclusions about the nature of the relationship between course taking and achievement, researchers and policymakers must use longitudinal data to examine achievement gains, with careful controls for other explanatory factors including the availability of different types of courses. Longitudinal data allow researchers to observe thelevel of student achievement prior to taking particular courses; to measure achievement againafter completing the courses; and then to examine how the change in achievement is related to differences in course taking. Recent analyses of data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS) show that certain academic courses contribute to achievement gains, while vocational courses neither add to nor detract from achievement gains (Rasinski 1994). Rasinski found gains in mathematics achievement associated with taking algebra I and II, geometry, precalculus, calculus, and physics courses. After controlling for academic course taking, he found no significant relationship between vocational course taking and mathematics achievement gains in the model for all students, but he did find scattered positive and negative relationships for certain types of vocational courses among certain groups of students. Likewise, Meyer found in his analysis of the High School and Beyond sophomore cohort that vocational courses with enriched math content were associated with gains in mathematics achievement, although not as much as mathematics courses that covered the same material (Meyer 1992). These studies document the same patterns between vocational course taking and academic performance that are reported here, but their longitudinal format enabled the researchers to examine the relationship between vocational course taking and achievement gain after isolating other factors related to those gains.

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