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Occupational Programs and the Use of Skill Competencies at the Secondary and Postsecondary Levels, 1999
NCES: 2000023
February 2000


This E.D. TAB report presents part of the data collected from two 1999 surveys: Vocational Programs in Secondary Schools and Occupational Programs in Postsecondary Education Institution. 1 The surveys were conducted to provide the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) with national estimates on occupational program activities. The summaries in this report focus on the use of skill competency lists in occupational programs, the extent of industry involvement in developing or adopting the competency lists, and the credentialing of skill proficiencies. 2

The surveys on occupational programs were conducted in response to an increasing national concern over the gap between existing workforce skills and expanding workplace demands. That concern was triggered by the "workforce crisis" described in Choice: High Skills or Low Wages (Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce 1990). It was also spurred by the recognition that with changing technology and work organizations, schools need to do more to equip students with the more sophisticated and higher level skills that today's workplace requires (Grubb 1995). These concerns have set in motion a growing demand for clearer and higher standards in occupational education, and increased industry input in the development of those standards (Lankard 1995).

The push for standards and accountability in occupational education was also intensified by several policy initiatives over the past decade. The 1990 Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act created a requirement that states establish systems of standards and measures to assess vocational education programs. The 1990 Act also authorized federal support for business and education standards projects. In the early 1990s, the Departments of Education and Labor supported 22 projects to create skill standards for a wide variety of occupations and industries. The National Skills Standards Board (NSSB), authorized in 1994 by the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, builds on these projects and the efforts of many other industrial and occupational groups that have established skill standards. Its purpose is to stimulate the development of a voluntary national system of skill standards by creating a framework of career clusters within which skill standards can be developed. To achieve this goal, NSSB supports partnerships of business, trade associations, education, community organizations, and other stakeholders to develop skill standards. It also endorses skill standards systems developed by industry-labor-education partnerships.

The 1998 Perkins Act builds on the above efforts by expanding the requirements for states to develop performance accountability systems, including state-level measures of student skill attainment. In keeping with the legislation, performance accountability systems are intended to:

  • Include four core indicators that measure student performance and post-vocational education experiences in further education, training, and employment;

  • Set performance levels for the four vocational outcomes, including student attainment of skill proficiencies; and

  • Measure and report the performance of the states on the indicators.

Increased accountability is also sought at the federal level. The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA) requires that federal departments and agencies prepare annual performance goals, starting with a performance plan for the 1999 fiscal year (Groszyk 1995). To meet its GPRA reporting requirements, OVAE is required to submit an annual report comparing the status of occupational programs with the goals identified in its annual performance plan. One indicator of occupational program activities listed in OVAE's 1998-1999 Annual Plan is the following:

Skill Proficiencies. By fall 2000, there will be an increasing proportion of vocational programs with skill competencies and related assessments, and with industry-recognized skill certificates in secondary and postsecondary institutions. 3

The summary tables in this report present statistics relevant to this OVAE performance indicator. It should be noted that although skill competencies are often used as or with skill standards, the focus of the surveys is on skill competencies, and the measure of skill standards includes the use of any skill competency lists. Typically, these competencies might incorporate skill standards that were developed by the state and/or those developed locally through consultation between teachers and local employers. Although some programs might have also integrated existing national standards, 4 the use of such standards cannot be determined from these surveys. The surveys also focus on the role of industry in the development or adoption of skill competencies. Industry involvement is critical to ensure that students are learning the skills currently required by industry, particularly in fast-changing industries such as information technology, health, and manufacturing.

Secondary schools were defined as regular and vocational schools that include grades 11 and 12 (i.e., schools that may offer upper level occupational programs), and the schools were asked about program activities in 28 selected occupations within 6 broad occupational areas. The postsecondary survey included 2-year and less-than-2-year postsecondary institutions with Title IV eligibility, and the institutions were asked to report on 32 similar occupations (see appendix D for the list of occupations and occupation areas). For the secondary school survey, questionnaires were mailed to a national sample of 1,200 public secondary schools, comprising 600 vocational schools (including area or regional vocational schools) and 600 comprehensive schools. A total of 508 vocational and 567 comprehensive schools responded to the survey. The resulting secondary sample represents about 1,800 vocational schools and 15,000 comprehensive schools (Table 1). For the postsecondary survey, some 1,289 less-than-4-year institutions, comprising 689 2-year and 600 less-than-2-year institutions, were sampled. A total of 595 2- year institutions and 505 less-than-2-year institutions completed the survey. The postsecondary sample represents about 2,000 2-year and 1,600 less-than-2-year institutions (Table 1). 5

The secondary school survey was conducted through the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Fast Response Survey System (FRSS), and the postsecondary survey was conducted through the NCES Postsecondary Education Quick Information System (PEQIS) during spring 1999. FRSS and PEQIS are survey systems designed to collect small amounts of issue-oriented data with minimal burden on respondents and within a relatively short time frame. Survey data have been weighted to produce national estimates. Significant differences are presented by school type (vocational, comprehensive) for the FRSS survey, and level of institution (2-year, less-than-2-year) for the PEQIS survey. All comparative statements made in this report have been tested for statistical significance through chi-square tests or ttests adjusted for multiple comparisons using the Bonferroni adjustment and are significant at the 0.05 level or better. However, not all significant comparisons have been presented in the report.

1 This report presents an early release of the data for Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) to meet its Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) reporting requirements. The full report will be published in late winter, 2000.

2 For the secondary survey, a vocational program was defined as a sequence of courses designed to prepare students for an occupation (e.g., nurses' aide) or occupation area (e.g., health care) that typically requires education below the baccalaureate level. This definition did not include career exploration or other introductory courses that prepare students for adult life or for work in general (e.g., consumer and homemaking, industrial arts). A similar definition was used at the postsecondary level, except that a noncredit occupational program could have consisted of only one course or more than one course. For both surveys, a skill competency was defined as a concept, skill, or attitude that is essential to an occupation; the level of attainment or performance established for a skill competency is a skill standard. Because these terms tend to be used interchangeably in practice, the term "skill competencies" was used to refer to both skill competencies and skill standards.

3 The Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), Annual Performance Plan, 1998-1999.

4 Although there are some existing national standards (e.g., the ASE automobile standards), the NSSB skill standards do not yet exist.

5 National estimates are based on adjustments for out-of-scope schools and reported school type for the secondary sample, and out-of-scope institutions and recent school closings for the postsecondary sample. See appendix B for more details on methodology.