JVER v25n3 - High Schools That Work and Tech Prep: Improving Student Performance in Basic Skills
High Schools That Work and Tech Prep:
Improving Student Performance in Basic Skills
North Carolina State University
AbstractThe purpose of this study was to determine the effects of participating in the High Schools That Work (HSTW) program on achievement of agricultural education students in the areas of reading, mathematics, and science. Students enrolled in agricultural education at HSTW sites in North Carolina were administered the National HSTW Assessment, which was based on items from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Scores in reading, mathematics, and science for agricultural education students were compared to scores from all students at HSTW sites and to students in college preparatory programs who completed the NAEP. Results showed that agricultural education students who had been involved in the HSTW curriculum failed to meet the goal of the HSTW program in reading, mathematics, and science; they had made progress toward meeting the HSTW goals.
The major goal of tech prep programs has been to increase the academic performance of students enrolled in vocational-technical curricula ( Bragg, 1995 ). Tech prep programs have taken on many forms throughout the country, but the primary characteristics include increasing the academic content in vocational-technical curricula and raising the level of expectation of students. According to Bragg, teaching academic content through a real-world context, or applied academics, has been a method of improving student performance in basic skills employed by many high schools. Tech prep requires elimination of watered down math, science and English courses in high schools and the integration of academic and vocational education through applied academic courses ( Winterburn, 1995 ).
The Southern Region Education Board (SREB) developed a program in 1985 to address concerns by employers that high school graduates were not prepared for successful employment in the real world. Students who were not planning to continue their education in a four-year baccalaureate program were not receiving the type of education that prepared them to enter the American workplace ( Bottoms, 1992 ; Winterburn, 1995 ). The program, called High Schools That Work (HSTW), promoted by the SREB emphasized integration of higher level academic courses with vocational courses and has been accepted and expanded to 650 high schools in 21 states ( Miller, 1997 ).
Whereas HSTW is not synonymous with tech prep, many of the goals of HSTW are similar to those of tech prep. The primary goal of the HSTW program is to improve reading, mathematics, science, technical, and problem solving abilities of vocational students. According to Bottoms ( 1992 ), "the aim is to close dramatically the achievement gap between students pursuing a vocational major and those completing a college preparatory program of study" ( p. 26 ). The specific aim is to close the gap between vocational students and college prep students' scores in reading, mathematics, and science by one-third ( Miller, 1997 ). The HSTW program sought to accomplish this goal by teaching academic content through an applied process, by requiring students in vocational programs to complete additional courses in math and sciences, and by encouraging academic and vocational teachers to work together to provide educational programs that better prepare students for lifelong learning on the job or in schools ( Bottoms, 1993 ).
The HSTW program is based upon applied learning theory and the premise that schools should require students to think differently than how they think in real life. According to the National Council on Vocational Education ( 1991 ), those differences were in four major areas (a) individual learning vs. cooperative learning, (b) abstract thinking vs. concrete thinking, (c) symbol manipulation vs. reasoning with symbols, and (d) generalizing from concepts vs. generalizing from concrete examples. Therefore, the response to low achievement by HSTW was not simply to add more academic content to the curriculum for vocational students; but to add the academic content in an applied format that provided for group learning and use of mathematics and science concepts in concrete settings ( Bottoms, Presson, & Johnson, 1992 ). In addition, vocational teachers were provided with tools to reinforce reasoning with symbols by integrating more academic content into the vocational courses they taught. Fogarty ( 1991 ) explained that the integrated model provides students with better opportunities to make the relationships between academic and vocational content.
The SREB curriculum specifies that students in vocational courses complete a more rigorous program of studies than had been traditionally completed by vocational students. Students must complete at least three credits each in math and science, with two credits in each subject from courses that are comparable to college preparatory courses. Furthermore, the program of study should include science in both the junior and senior year of high school and math in the senior year. In English, students complete four courses with content equal to that of college prep courses. Students must also complete at least four credits in a vocational major with a coherent sequence of courses in the major and two credits of related vocational or technical courses ( Bottoms, 1992 ).
The underlying theoretical basis for HSTW is expectency-value theory ( Murray, 1943 ). According to this theory, students will be motivated to learn only if they feel the task is within the appropriate range of challenge-not too easy and not extremely difficult. A second, critical component of the theory is that learning activities must be perceived by students to have some practical value ( Brophy, 1987 ). Teaching academic subjects in an applied context, not only places the material within an appropriate range of challenge, but also provides the student with a practical application of mathematics, science, and English in a real-world setting.
A preliminary assessment of SREB pilot sites showed evidence that HSTW had potential to improve the achievement of vocational students ( Bottoms, Presson, & Johnson, 1992 ). Students who completed vocational programs at SREB pilot sites in 1990 completed the HSTW Assessment, which was developed using items from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Students who reported that their vocational teachers often stressed reading, mathematics, and science skills had significantly higher scores in all three subject areas than students who reported their vocational teachers did not emphasize those academic areas. Another measure of success included reports of increased enrollment in community college programs by students graduating from HSTW sites ( Lozada, 1996 ).
Purpose and Objectives
High Schools That Work (HSTW) programs have been in place in North Carolina for slightly over ten years, and there was a need to assess the progress that has occurred in agricultural education programs participating in HSTW sites. Research was needed to ascertain the extent to which HSTW was meeting the goals of improving the reading, mathematics, and science scores of student participants. The specific objectives of the study were to:
- Determine the effect of participating in a HSTW site on the reading achievement scores for agricultural education students as measured by the HSTW Assessment scores.
- Determine the effect of participating in a HSTW site on the mathematics achievement scores for agricultural education students as measured by the HSTW Assessment scores.
- Determine the effect of participating in a HSTW site on the science achievement scores for agricultural education students as measured by the HSTW Assessment scores.
- Assess the progress made by agricultural education students in North Carolina HSTW sites toward meeting the HSTW goals and narrowing the gap between achievement of agricultural education students and college prep students.
The research design used in this study was a one-group, posttest only design ( Gall, Borg & Gall, 1996 ). This design was strengthened by using the national average for all HSTW sites and for college prep students as comparison groups. All agricultural education students in schools that participated in the HSTW program in 1996 (N = 244) were administered the National Assessment of Education Progress (HSTW Assessment) exam in order to determine their level of proficiency in reading, mathematics, and science. The HSTW Assessment was developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). Content validity and reliability on the various components of the HSTW Assessment were established by ETS. The exam was administered near the end of the 1995-96 academic year. Summary data were provided by ETS to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in the form of percentages, measures of central tendency, and measures of variance.
Agricultural education students in this study were asked if they had completed the courses in the SREB recommended curriculum. Of the 244 students, 45.9% had completed the recommended courses in English, 77.0% had completed the recommended mathematics curriculum, and only 38.9% had completed all of the recommended curriculum in science. A vast majority (91%) of the agricultural education students had completed a vocational major in agriculture. Only 20.5% of the students had completed all of the recommended SREB curriculum in English, mathematics, and science.
In the area of reading, the HSTW goal for all students in vocational programs was 279. The mean HSTW Assessment score for reading in 1996 for agricultural education students in North Carolina in HSTW was 270.1 (SE = 1.7). This compares to a mean reading score of 272.6 for all students in HSTW sites and 302.4 for all college prep students in the NAEP National Public School Sample. North Carolina agricultural education students who had completed the SREB recommended curriculum in English scored an average of 277.6 (SE = 2.5) on the HSTW reading assessment, compared to 263.7 (SE = 2.3) for students who had not completed the recommended curriculum. In addition to composite reading scores, the HSTW Assessment examines students' ability in six reading categories (see Table 1 ). Agricultural education students compared favorably to the composite group of all students in HSTW sites in the areas of reading to gain information and developing interpretations. A lower percentage of agricultural education students responded correctly to items dealing with the reading areas of performing a task, initial understanding, personal responses, and critical stances.
Table 1 Percentage of Agricultural Education Students Giving Correct Responses by Reading Purposes
Reading Purpose Ag Ed Students All HSTW Sites College Prep
Gain information 59.3 58.4 71.8 Perform a task 61.4 63.6 73.7 Initial understanding 84.4 85.2 N/A Develop interpretations 66.9 66.0 N/A Personal response 31.2 32.9 N/A Critical stances 56.9 59.4 N/A
The HSTW goal for mathematics achievement on the HSTW Assessment was 295. The mean HSTW Assessment score in mathematics for agricultural education students in HSTW programs in North Carolina was 286.9 (SE = 2.4). This compares to a mean score of 276.7 (SE = 1.6) for all vocational education students participating in HSTW programs and 316.8 (SE = 0.4) for all college prep students who completed the NAEP in 1996. Almost 60% of the agricultural education students had completed the recommended minimum of three credits in mathematics and earned a mean score of 280.7 (SE = 3.1) on the math assessment. Agricultural education students who had completed four or more credits in math (38% of population) averaged 298.3 (SE = 3.8) on the HSTW math assessment. Only 6 of the 244 students in agricultural education had completed less than three credits in math, scoring an average of 265.0 (SE = 36.5) on the HSTW math assessment.
The HSTW Assessment examines eight areas of mathematics performance. The percentage of North Carolina agricultural education students in HSTW programs that gave correct responses in the eight math content/process areas are compared to students in all HSTW sites and to college prep students in Table 2. Agricultural education students approached the level of math competency of college prep students who completed the NAEP and generally performed higher than the total group of students at HSTW sites who completed the HSTW Assessment. It should be noted that agricultural education students performed significantly higher in the math process area of conceptual understanding than the college prep students who were not in HSTW programs.
Table 2 Percentage of Agricultural Education Students Giving Correct Responses by Math Content or Process Area
Math Content/Process Area Ag Ed Students All HSTW Sites College Prep
Numbers & operations 68.4 68.3 65.8 Measurement 54.3 52.4 55.3 Geometry 60.0 58.2 60.5 Data analysis, statistics and probability 53.9 52.8 57.9 Algebra & functions 53.1 52.1 54.5 Conceptual understanding 76.3 73.4 57.1 Procedural knowledge 56.4 56.8 56.0 Problem solving 58.0 56.8 59.0
The HSTW goal for science achievement on the HSTW Assessment was 292. The mean HSTW Assessment score in science for agricultural education students in HSTW programs in North Carolina was 290.7 (SE = 1.6). This compares to a mean score of 282.6 (SE = 0.2) for all vocational education students participating in HSTW programs and 306.8 (SE = 0.6) for all college prep students who completed the NAEP in 1996. Approximately 60% of the agricultural education students had completed the recommended minimum of three credits in science. Those student who had completed three science credits earned a mean score of 286.3 (SE = 2.1) on the science assessment. Agricultural education students who had completed four or more credits in science (38% of population) averaged 297.3 (SE = 2.7) on the HSTW science assessment.
The HSTW Assessment examines seven areas of science performance. The percentage of North Carolina agricultural education students in HSTW programs that gave correct responses in the seven science content/process areas are compared to students in all HSTW sites and to college prep students in Table 3. As expected, agricultural education students performed at relatively high levels in the life sciences content area and in the process area of knowing science. In general, agricultural education students had a higher percentage of correct responses in science categories than HSTW students in other vocational areas. College prep students performed at higher levels than agricultural education students in the content area of earth and space and the nature of science and performed slightly better than agricultural education students in solving problems and conducting inquiries.
Table 3 Percentage of Agricultural Education Students Giving Correct Responses by Science Content or Process Area
Science Content/ Process Area Ag Ed Students All HSTW Sites College Prep
Life Sciences 70.5 62.3 63.7 Physical Sciences 49.2 45.9 51.9 Earth and Space 45.5 42.8 54.7 Nature of Science 52.8 49.9 70.4 Knowing Science 60.5 54.0 60.4 Solving Problems 48.0 44.6 53.2 Conducting Inquiries 57.2 57.4 60.1
In order to assess progress toward meeting the HSTW goals, data from the 1994 HSTW Assessment scores were compared to the 1996 data. However, readers are cautioned that these scores probably underestimate the effect of HSTW because several HSTW sites were added between 1994 and 1996. The new HSTW sites did not have as much time to implement the HSTW program and can be expected to have lower HSTW Assessment scores. Therefore, small gains in mean scores on the HSTW Assessment could be attributed to less time for implementation of the programs and practices that characterize the HSTW initiative.
In the area of reading, agricultural education students increased the mean HSTW Assessment scores from 263.8 (1994) to 270.1 (1996), an increase of 6.3 points in two years. In 1996, 37% of the agricultural education students met the HSTW goal of 279. In 1996 agricultural education students scored 286.9 on the math component of the HSTW Assessment, compared to 288.7 in 1994. While math scores did not improve from 1994 to 1996, 45% of the agricultural education students met the HSTW goal of 295 in mathematics. In the area of science, 1996 agricultural education students scored 290.7 on the HSTW Assessment, as compared to 292.2 in science in 1994. However, 52% of the agricultural education students met the HSTW goal of 292.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The following conclusions are based upon the findings of this study:
- Agricultural education students who have been involved in the HSTW curriculum have improved their reading ability. However, they have not met the goal established by the SREB for the reading assessment, and their scores are below those of their vocational counterparts who have participated in the HSTW program.
- Agricultural education students who have been involved in the curriculum were performing below expectations in mathematics, as determined by their HSTW Assessment scores. However, their performance exceeded their vocational counterparts who also participated in HSTW programs.
- Agricultural education students who have been involved in the curriculum were performing below expectations in science, as determined by their HSTW Assessment scores. However, their performance exceeded their vocational counterparts who also participated in HSTW programs. In the area of life sciences, agricultural education students exceeded the performance of the college prep students who completed the NAEP.
- Completing the required courses in the HSTW curriculum results in improved HSTW Assessment scores in the areas of reading, mathematics, and science. HSTW has demonstrated the potential to close the gap in basic skills between agricultural education students and college prep students.
Based upon these findings and conclusions, the following recommendations are offered:
- School administrators who wish to strengthen the basic skills of vocational education students should implement the curriculum and practices recommended by the SREB's HSTW program. Schools that participate in the HSTW initiative should ensure that students are completing the recommended curricula in English, mathematics, and science. In each of the assessment areas, students who had completed the recommended curriculum scored near the stated HSTW goal. However, only 21% of agricultural education students had completed all of the components of the HSTW program.
- Agricultural education teachers should stress reading in an applied form in their courses in an effort to reinforce the efforts of integrating English into the vocational curriculum.
- Agricultural education teachers have demonstrated successes in the area of life sciences, but need to improve their integration of physical sciences (chemistry and physics) in the agricultural curriculum in order to assist students in closing the gap in science between agricultural education students and their college prep counterparts.
- Future assessment of the HSTW initiative should include only schools that had participated in the program long enough to implement all of the HSTW recommendations.
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JIM FLOWERS is Associate Professor and Interim Department Head, Department of Agricultural and Extension Education, North Carolina State University, Box 7607, Raleigh, NC 27695-7607, [E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ]. His research interests include instructional methodology and improvement of career and technical teacher education programs.