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Desperately Seeking Shop Students

One of the richest scholarships in North America for high school students isn't for physics or calculus, but for starting a dead sedan.

The National Automotive Technology Competition sponsored by auto makers and tool companies earlier this month offered $3 million in prizes. It's one of the ways industries encourage vocational education at a time when states and the nation are emphasizing math, languages and sciences.

As academic standards rise, some fear a decline in the vocational education that for decades has produced the nation's entry-level craftsmen.

Matt Bushnell and Todd Clark, both from Albany suburbs, beat nearly 40 teams from as far away as Los Angeles and Toronto in the two-day competition in New York City. The test was to find as many bugs as they could in a modern car with 36 or more onboard computers - more than the Apollo lunar module.

They walked away with full scholarships to two-year automotive colleges, new cars upon graduation and thousands of dollars worth of tools. The prize also included $35,000 in tools and equipment and a 2004 Toyota Camry to work on in class for their school, the Capital Region Career & Technical School of the Capital Region BOCES.

Preliminary studies suggest fewer students are majoring in vocational education as states and the federal No Child Left Behind Act demand better performance in core academic subjects, said James Stone III, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the University of Minnesota.

"What I worry about is how we are turning a lot of kids off," Stone said. "The impact is if you tell a principal or a school district or a state, `Your funding is contingent on how many students show up every day and pass a test,' that's what you pay attention to."

He said the center is studying how to better integrate core lessons in math, science and languages into vocational education. New York, Massachusetts and Michigan are leading such efforts, he said.

Vocational education students increasingly have to pass college prep math, science and language standardized tests required for all students, plus standardized tests in their vocations.

"In a very odd juxtaposition of education policy, we are now requiring an even higher standard for graduation for youngsters who go to a vocational school," said Steven Sanders, chairman of the New York Assembly's Education Committee. "I am told by people in vocational technical schools that it is really discouraging youngsters from attending these schools and in some cases, that means students drop out."

In Washington and deficit-riddled statehouses, some education aid long reserved for vocational studies is being shifted to core academic instruction. The Association for Career and Technical Education based in Alexandria, Va., is now lobbying against cuts in aid for vocational education under No Child Left Behind.

"When we try to establish a one-size-fits-all approach, it invariably results in neglecting a whole cohort of students who were very well-served and society was very well-served by," Sanders said.

Jonathan Burman of the state Education Department says students in technical fields need strong math and reading skills.

"People typically pursue many jobs and careers throughout their lives, and they need the ability to adapt to a complex and changing economy," he said.

The state has 585 programs merging tech classes with core lessons. The number of New York students in vocation and technical programs declined from 319,705 in 1992 to 216,042 in 2001. Last year, it rose to 272,679.

Bushnell and Clark, who also had to fill out efficient work orders and diagnose specific problems as part of the test earlier this month, agree.

"I've seen mechanics who couldn't write, but I think it's a very important part of it," said Clark.

"They do a pretty good job of integrating all our classes," Bushnell said. "I think math and English are pretty important, too."

By Michael Gormley