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Career Diploma Given Short Shrift

Welding in action at Louisiana School for the Agricultural Sciences.
Sue Lincoln

Louisiana’s Department of Education is hosting a series of regional meetings this month to talk about simplifying the state’s high school diploma options.

The department is looking to put more emphasis on career training, after lawmakers’, employers’, and teachers’ repeated complaints that the state is too focused on sending kids on to college, instead of preparing them for real-world jobs.

All Sydney Charles Ducote ever wanted was to be a welder. The 17-year-old from Hessmer, La. has been learning how in his classes at the Louisiana School for the Agricultural Sciences. Ducote is good enough that he's already got a job lined up with Turner Industries once he graduates next year.

"Turner sponsors our welding night class, and I've been coming here for three years, as far as the night class. And we done talked about it and made plans on a job out of high school," Ducote explained.

Turner Industries Training Manager Ray Neck says Ducote is just what the industrial construction business is seeking in an employee, "The ones that have a vision, and see that they want to do that type of thing with their career. We can grab them early."

Ducote is working toward a career diploma, the path designed for students who could not pass one part of the 8th grade LEAP test -- either English or math. It's a way they can still move on to high school and earn a diploma.

State Rep. Jim Fannin of Jonesboro -- a former high school agriculture teacher -- authored the 2009 bill creating this alternative to the usual college prep diploma.

“When I started teaching in 1974, we had about a 35 percent dropout. 35 years later, we still have a 35 percent dropout. And I was trying to make some effort to educate those that may not feel that a 4-year degree was for them," Fannin said.

Only 86 career diplomas were awarded in 2012. This year, there were just 171 career diplomas earned, out of more than 43,000 total Louisiana high school graduates. Fannin says he's very disappointed for the students that the state Dept. of Education has not been more supportive of the career diploma path.

“We had resistance because we heard that it was ‘watered down’ education. And consequently, the Department has not—in my mind—used that tool to do the things I had hoped it would do, far as our dropouts,” he said.

Career diploma students can take business math instead of the geometry and trigonometry required for college-bound students. Yet those higher level maths are part of what's tested on the ACT, the college entrance exam now required to be taken by every Louisiana high school student.

Kaplan High School teacher Debbie Meaux told the House Education Committee the testing requirement is sending the wrong message.

“Basically, I feel as though I’ve lied to them. We have been telling them, ‘If you’re not going to college, you don’t have to take this ACT.‘ They chose a different diploma route, and now they’re being forced to take a test that does not reflect that route that they took," Meaux said at a public hearing in April. "And right now I think they feel as though their state is dumping on them.”

Louisiana is one of just ten states mandating all high school students take the ACT.

Chas Roemer is president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Roemer is also a real estate developer and doesn't see why requiring every student to take the ACT is problematic.

“The skills that are required of my employees are the same skills that are required of an incoming freshman at a four-year-college. So an ACT has relevance not only for a student who’s going to college, but for a student who’s choosing a career," Roemer said at the April Education Committee hearing.

Ray Neck with Turner disagrees.

“That’s not necessarily what we’re looking for," Turner said. "We’re looking for work ethic. It’s an attitude that I’m not ashamed to work in industrial construction. Passing the ACT does not tell me that they have that attitude—or that they want to work.”

Rep. Fannin says while state education officials have assured him more emphasis on the career diploma path will be forthcoming, he still got the legislature to urge the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to change the testing rules.

BESE has until January 2014 to report back to the legislature on whether it's feasible to offer the ACT's "Work Keys" career aptitude test to career diploma students, instead of requiring them to take the college entrance exam.

The dates for the Dept. of Education's conversations about revamping the Louisiana high school diploma are posted at louisianabelieves.com.