Not going to college? How about a 'career diploma' from high school?

The provision in Louisiana puts the state in the center of a national debate about where to set the bar for high school graduation.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

High-schoolers in Louisiana will soon be able to opt for a "career diploma" – taking some alternative courses instead of a full college-prep curriculum. The new path to graduation – expected to be signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) in the coming days – bucks a trend in which many states are cranking up academic requirements.

The legislation puts the state in the center of a national debate about where to set the bar for high school graduation.

Advocates of the new diploma option say it will keep more struggling students in school and will prepare them for jobs, technical training, or community college. Critics doubt the curriculum will be strong enough to accomplish such goals and say it shortchanges students in the long run, given the projections that a large number of future jobs will require a college degree.

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The impact may ultimately depend on how well the new option is implemented by school districts.

"Not all career-tech [education] is created equal," says Mary McNaught, chief of staff at Civic Enterprises, a public-policy group in Washington. "High-quality programs offer real skills that can be used in the workplace.... At other times, it is watering down standards, and kids who are put on that track don't [gain] the skills needed to compete in the technical arenas [or] in a 21st-century economy."

As a former judge who sent many high school dropouts to prison, state Sen. Robert Kostelka (R) sponsored the bill in hopes of inspiring students who are more interested in nuts and bolts than "Beowulf." As they enter high school, many "are finding less and less relevance to the normal college-prep curriculum and [want] technical training," he says. "It's really not lowering standards; it's just another pathway ... for those that can't go the harder, more rigorous path."

With the new measure, Louisiana will join roughly half the states in offering less demanding pathways for a diploma, says Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., a Washington-based education-reform coalition. "What Louisiana has done is take a step backwards," he says.

In recent years, more than 20 states have "identified a rigorous core [curriculum] intended for all or nearly all kids," Mr. Cohen says. Louisiana had been one leader in that trend.

All along, Louisiana has offered some career and technical courses, but the new track will put more emphasis on them.

Educators are generally split on the issue: Fifty-nine percent of teachers and 41 percent of principals believe there should be separate tracks to allow students who are not college bound to get a diploma, according to a recent Civic Enterprises report.

Yet Louisiana has raised academic standards and graduation rates simultaneously, critics of the legislation, including the state superintendent of education, have pointed out. Among ninth-graders, for instance, the graduation rate rose from about 61 percent in 2001 to 66 percent in 2007, according to the state.

Supporters of the legislation offer another figure: Among seventh-graders, only about 54 percent graduate from high school, and many of them leave the system before ninth grade, says Keith Guice, president of the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Another controversial element of the new plan allows eighth-graders to score lower on state tests and still enter high school – as long as they get parental consent and participate in remediation and dropout-prevention programs. "This diploma, hopefully, is going to provide a second chance for many students who are on the dropout road," Mr. Guice says.

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