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Mass. vocational students to receive certificates showing skills

MALDEN, Mass. --Vocational high school students can prove to would-be employers that they've mastered skills in their chosen trades with a new certificate approved Tuesday by the state Board of Education.

The "Certificate of Occupational Proficiency" is designed to signify a more advanced level of knowledge in a particular field. For example, a carpentry student would have to design and build a structure. A culinary arts student will need to plan a menu and prepare a meal.

Students in the class of 2010 will be the first eligible for the certificate. It won't be a graduation requirement, but Peter Dewar, superintendent at Joseph P. Keefe Technical School in Framingham said students will seek it for the value it gives them as job seekers, or in continuing education.

It will also help schools measure their effectiveness, he said.

"It puts rigor into your program, it gives clear expectations and structure to program studies," Dewar said. "I don't see how it can hurt. Of course, it's been a long time coming."

The certificates were first mandated in the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, but state officials only began pushing for them in recent years as the range of offerings at vocational schools expanded, and demands of employers increased.

Vocational schools now typically offer courses including information or business technology to go along with traditional studies, such as automotive repair and plumbing.

The certificate's standards are being devised with professionals in the various fields. Education Commissioner David Driscoll said the new certificates bring the "real world" into vocational technical schools.

"This is going to raise standards significantly both in the area of their chosen vocation but also in their academics and other skill sets," Driscoll said prior to the unanimous vote.

The Massachusetts certificate is part of a trend among vocational schools nationwide to demonstrate their students' skills to employers, according to Alisha Hyslop, assistant director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education in Baltimore, Md.

In Alabama, for instance, educators are starting to require that all technical programs include industry-recognized certification. Virginia has a "career readiness certificate," which shows a student has math and reading skills needed in the workplace, Hyslop said.

To qualify for the Massachusetts certificate, students must pass the English and math MCAS exams, as well as a written and performance test. They will be required to complete a portfolio, earn a safety credential, and develop a career plan and resume.

The tests, still being developed, will be based on the 43 vocational technical education frameworks which set the standards for programs of study.

Also Tuesday, the Board of Education endorsed a plan to raise the graduation requirement scores on the MCAS exam from 220 to 240. Under the plan, students who do not meet the higher score would be required to take and pass further classes in the subjects they failed.

The plan creates a history and science MCAS exam, which will become a graduation requirement for the class of 2012. It also increases the requirements to earn a Certificate of Mastery, which indicates a student is ready for college, and creates a Certificate of Mastery with Distinction to be given to students who show advanced achievement.

The proposal is now up for public comment. A final proposal will be considered by the board in October.

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