Pennsylvania Legislators Consider Alternative Graduation Requirements for CTE Students

Career and technical education students could graduate with industry certifications instead of taking the Keystone Exam if some lawmakers have their way.

by Robert Swift, The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa. / November 7, 2016

(TNS) — HARRISBURG, Penn. — A Northeast region lawmaker is pursuing several initiatives to better prepare career and technical education students for higher-paying trade jobs.

Rep. Mike Tobash, R-125, Pottsville, said he thinks there is a disconnect between the education that career and technical students receive in Pennsylvania and the job skills sought by employers. He said a closer partnership is needed between educators and businesses to fill demand for such jobs as electricians, plumbers, welders and medical technicians.

"Our educators and job creators are not on the same page," said Mr. Tobash.

About 47,000 students were enrolled in the 80 Career and Technical Centers in Pennsylvania during the 2015-16 academic year, according to the state Education Department. In addition, about 200 school districts offer courses in business education.

Mr. Tobash's efforts led to a 2014 state law that allows educators to receive continuing education credits for visiting manufacturing companies. The aim of these visits is to build awareness of the job skills needed in the manufacturing process, he said.

He made some headway last month with legislation to give career and technical education students an alternative to taking the Keystone Exam as a high school graduation requirement.

The Keystone Exam in algebra, biology and literature is scheduled to take effect in the 2018-19 school year. Lawmakers approved a delay with the exams last year and directed the state Education Department to consider alternatives to the Keystone Exam.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-28, Pittsburgh, sponsored the bill this year to allow career and technical students to obtain an industry-based competency certification offered by the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute or the National Institute for Metalworking Skills instead. He said the state's educational policy shouldn't reflect a one-size-fits-all approach.

Mr. Tobash, a bill cosponsor, said providing the certification alternative recognizes the need for a diverse workforce to expand the economy.

He questioned the value of having career and technical students take a mandated biology test, for example.

The House approved the bill unanimously last month, but it didn't reach the Senate floor in the rush at the end of the voting session. This means the bill will have to be introduced in the next session starting in January.

The top official of the Career Technology Center of Lackawanna County is skeptical of this legislation.

"I believe we should promote high expectations for our students," said Administrative Director Thomas Baileys, Ed.D.

Many CTC students continue in post-secondary education and there are expectations for these students to be versed in math and the English language, he said.

Mr. Baileys said a better outcome would be to have students grounded in both the academic subjects and occupational competency measures.

However, the Pennsylvania Association of Career and Technical Administrators supports Mr. Turzi's legislation, said executive director Jackie Cullin.

Mr. Tobash plans to introduce a bill to earmark $10 million in state Educational Improvement Tax Credits for distribution among businesses that make contributions to career and technical schools. This could involve a donation of equipment used by the company, he said.

Businesses have been donating equipment to career and technical schools for years, said Mr. Baileys.

©2016 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.