Career and Technical Education in the Balance: An Analysis of High School Persistence, Academic Achievement, and Postsecondary Destinations

Publication January 2001

Educators, researchers, and policymakers are currently examining the ways that career and technical education (CTE) is—and could be—coupled with core academic education in U.S. high schools. Efforts to integrate vocational and college preparatory course-taking in meaningful and effective ways have been gaining attention and momentum since the passage of the 1990 Perkins Act. These efforts have been further augmented the 1998 Perkins Act. However, attempts to integrate CTE and academic courses have been taking place on the heels of declining rates of high school vocational course-taking witnessed during the 1980s and early 1990s.

This study discusses how CTE and academic curricula can, or should, co-exist in U.S. high schools. The study examines the relationship between (a) the balance struck between CTE and academic course-taking during the high school years, and (b) academic achievement, persistence in high school, and postsecondary destinations. Data come from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988. The surveys, cognitive tests, and high school transcript information used in the analyses were collected between 1988, when sample members were eighth graders in U.S. schools, and 1994, when most sample members were two years beyond high school graduation.

The balance struck between CTE and academic course-taking is measured in two ways. For analyses of 1992 cognitive test scores and for analyses of postsecondary destinations, each sample member is classified as either (a) an academic concentrator, (b) a CTE concentrator, © a dual concentrator, or (d) one who fulfilled neither concentration. An academic concentration requires fulfillment of a standard—if somewhat lenient—version of the New Basics (completing four Carnegie units of English and three Carnegie units in each of mathematics, science, and social studies during high school). A CTE concentration requires earning at least three Carnegie credits in any one of eleven Specific Labor Market Preparation vocational areas.

For analyses of the likelihood of dropping out of high school, a different measure of an individual’s balance between CTE and academic course-taking is used. This alternative measurement is the ratio of CTE credits earned to academic credits earned. The methodological and conceptual reasons for the change in measurement are explained within this paper. Analyses of academic achievement show significant associations between high school course-taking patterns and 1992 test scores in reading, mathematics, science, and history, controlling for gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and eighth-grade test scores.

Specifically, academic concentrators exhibit the highest 1992 achievement in each subject area, after background controls are taken into account. Following them by a small but statistically significant margin are dual concentrators. The third-highest scoring group are those students who fulfilled neither concentration, followed by the CTE concentrators. Evidence is presented to show that part of the achievement advantage enjoyed by purely academic concentrators may be linked to the greater number of credits they amass in advanced academic topics.

Analyses of the likelihood of dropping out reveal an intriguing curvilinear pattern. After controlling for prior achievement, grades, and student background characteristics, the risk of dropping out is estimated to be at its lowest near the point at which a student completes three Carnegie units of CTE for every four Carnegie units of academic subjects. As the CTE-to-academic ratio gets smaller (closer to zero) or larger (rising above 0.77), the risk of dropping out is estimated to increase. The salience of this curvilinear relationship appears to be strongest for students who are already at relatively high risk of dropping out (due to low prior test scores or low grades, for example). Possible explanations for the curvilinear finding are discussed. Also, the author suggests that—if it is indeed true that a middle-range mix of CTE and academic course-taking can lower the risk of dropping out for some students—educators and policymakers might be wise to encourage such a mix, even if it brings slight reductions in standardized test scores in core academic subjects. Given the importance of a high school diploma in our society, slight reductions in test scores might be found acceptable in exchange for higher graduation rates.

Finally, analyses of postsecondary destinations reveal several noteworthy points. For example, almost all students in this national sample were engaged in postsecondary schooling or paid employment, or both, during what was, for most of them, the first full calendar year after high-school graduation. This in itself is encouraging news. Secondly, substantial numbers of individuals from each of the four featured high school course-taking sequences (purely academic concentrators, purely CTE concentrators, dual concentrators, and those who had neither high school concentration) pursued postsecondary education; and substantial numbers of students from each course-taking sequence pursued paid employment. Individuals did seem to reach the end of high school with multiple options before them.

Nonetheless, while none of the curricular concentrations during high school completely precluded any of the postsecondary paths analyzed in this report, the curricular concentrations did affect an individual’s probability of following one path or another. Controlling for gender, race, SES, and pre-high school achievement, purely academic concentrators were most likely to become purely or primarily students during 1993. They were followed by dual concentrators, those who had neither high school concentration, and, finally, purely CTE concentrators.

Conversely, regarding the world of work, purely CTE concentrators were most likely to become purely or primarily workers in 1993. They were followed by those who had neither high school concentration, dual concentrators, and, finally, purely academic concentrators. In some ways, the results of the analyses of the postsecondary destinations contained few surprises. But they do serve to suggest that the balance struck between CTE and academic course-taking does affect an individual’s destination after high school. And the results also suggest that some of the goals of efforts to integrate CTE and academic offerings—such as allowing individuals to have multiple attractive options available after high school—are being met at a most basic level. The report concludes by highlighting a series of issues deserving of further investigation.

Plank, S. (2001). Career and technical education in the balance: An analysis of high school persistence, academic achievement, and postsecondary destinations. St. Paul, MN: National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, University of Minnesota.

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