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Study: Tech classes correlate with better achievement

On average, students enrolled in CTE programs showed better attendance and grades than their peers

High school students in Florida who took at least one technology course and industry certification exam had higher attendance rates and GPAs, on average, than students with similar backgrounds who did not take such a course, a new study finds.

Just what this means is unclear, but the researchers who conducted the study surmise that students who take technology classes preparing them with real-world skills might be more engaged in school.

While the findings apply to Florida students in particular, the researchers say they could have implications for career and technical education (CTE) programs in schools nationwide.

The study, “Student Performance in Career and Technical Education,” was conducted by Grunwald Associates with support from Adobe.

“We think the findings are probably relevant nationally, given the size and makeup of the population in Florida,”’ said Peter Grunwald, president of Grunwald Associates. “We focused on Florida because of the state’s interest in CTE and the size and robustness of the CTE student data set.”

In 2007, Florida legislators passed the Career and Professional Education Act, which aimed to strengthen college and career readiness.

The state wanted to transform what is traditionally known as vocational education into broader career possibilities consisting of academic, workplace, and technical skills. The legislation mandates that Florida districts offer rigorous academic courses that meet, or exceed, state-adopted subject-area standards, lead to industry certification, and result in postsecondary credit where possible.

Now, the achievement of students who took technology courses leading to industry certifications suggests that Florida’s efforts are headed in the right direction.

“Florida’s efforts to strengthen CTE mirror a national movement in this direction, which was underscored in the 2006 reauthorization of the federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act,” according to the report. “Hence, the findings may be relevant to a renewed emphasis on CTE that is under way now in many other states.”

The report examines the attendance and achievement of high school students who took at least one technology course leading to industry certification in the baseline 2007-08 school year (when the legislation passed), and in the 2008-09 school year (when Florida’s 67 districts began efforts to deliver those CTE courses).

Key findings

The study found that high school students who took at least one technology course and at least one industry certification exam had a better average attendance rate and grade point average than students with similar demographics who took no technology courses or exams during the same period.

Researchers also found virtually no difference in four-year college entrance rates among students who took at least one technology course and industry certification exam and those who did not.

“This seems to indicate that students who took technology courses and exams had the same opportunity to enter postsecondary institutions as other students,” according to the report.

The report notes that this positive relationship is correlational and not necessarily causal, but “given that attendance, GPA, and admission to four-year colleges and universities are important measures of high school success … this relationship warrants attention and further exploration.”

Researchers noted that students who took a technology course and an industry certification exam attended, on average, almost 17 more days of school.

“Attendance is one way that schools gauge student engagement in learning—and increased attendance can be seen as a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for improved GPA. Furthermore, attendance is of critical importance to school districts whose state funding may be dependent on average daily attendance,” the report says.

Florida high school students who took at least one technology course had an average GPA of 2.92, compared to an average GPA of 2.55 for students of similar demographics.

The higher average GPA for students who took technology classes represents their grades in other classes, because in Florida schools, technology courses that lead to industry certification are pass/fail courses.

“This finding counters any notion that the GPAs of students who took technology classes were inflated by the inclusion of grades in courses that some still perceive as ‘easy’ or less academically challenging than courses in other subjects,” the report notes.

What’s more, the similar rates of admission into four-year colleges for students who completed at least one technology course and students who did not “could help to dispel lingering perceptions that students who take CTE courses are less likely to go to four-year colleges and universities than other students, that these courses do not prepare students for college, and that these courses are less rigorous than other courses,” the authors write.

They add: “While it’s not yet possible to know whether technology coursework gives students an edge in postsecondary admission, the early findings suggest that it does not hold them back.”

Most students who took technology courses were male (66.8 percent), English-speaking (77.6 percent), and white (57.9 percent).

“While it may not be surprising that boys are more interested in technology than girls, it’s good news that these courses engage boys—a population that some see as disaffected in school,” the authors note. “At the same time, districts and schools might have an opportunity to engage more girls, English language learners, and minorities in technology courses, given the high demand for underrepresented populations in technology-related careers and, more generally, in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.”

Next steps

The report includes a number of starting points to help researchers better understand how technology coursework is related to student outcomes.

Those starting points include:

• Analyze baseline data on student demographics, academic coursework and performance prior to high school, and more longitudinal data on student performance after they take technology courses to draw richer inferences.

• Explore the trajectory of attendance and grades for students enrolled in technology courses, beginning early in high school.

• Generate and analyze quantitative and qualitative data on students’ reasons for enrolling in technology courses that lead to industry certification.

• Examine whether out-of-school activities that promote the use of technology impact attendance, grades, and persistence in career pathways.

• Consider whether social connections that emerge from technology coursework influence attendance, grades, and persistence in career pathways.

• Generate data on students’ attitudes toward school and study the relationships of student attitudes with attendance and GPA.

• Explore how school districts promote CTE, and how students and parents learn about technology courses that lead to industry certification.

• Examine students’ prior technology experiences and the relationship of these to course selection.

• Probe students’ use of technology in their other classes and its relationship to their interest in coursework that leads to industry certification.

• Study the perceived and potential barriers to technology coursework among girls, English language learners, and minorities.

Although the report addresses the 2008-09 school year, researchers note that data from Florida’s 2010-11 school year “indicate that industry certifications, in particular, are associated with positive student performance. … This [information] include students in all CTE classes, not just technology-focused courses.”

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