skip to main content

Leading Practices for the State’s Secondary Career and Technical Education Programs

November 28, 2018 Download this report as a PDF »

The state’s secondary CTE courses with high enrollment could more strongly align with high-wage, high-demand occupational areas. Many mid-level-skill jobs pay well and require no more than two years of education from a community or technical college. However, Washington employers say they can’t fill many such jobs. The audit identified four areas for improvement and leading practices that, if adopted, could increase opportunities for students while closing the gap between students’ skills and employers’ needs.

Share this on social!
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

 Report Credits Report Number 1020510

State Auditor’s Office contacts

State Auditor Pat McCarthy

Chuck Pfeil, CPA – Director of Performance Audit

Christopher Cortines, CPA – Principal Performance Auditor

Carolyn Cato – Senior Performance Auditor

Isaiah Berg – Performance Auditor

Emily Cimber – Performance Auditor

William Clark – Performance Auditor

Kathleen Cooper – Deputy Director for Communications

Key Results

This performance audit found that the state’s secondary CTE courses with the highest enrollment could more strongly align with high-wage, high-demand occupational areas. It identifies four areas for improvement. If Washington adopts leading practices in these four areas, the state could create more opportunities for students while closing the gap between students’ skills and employers’ needs. The four areas are:

  1. Improve career guidance given to students, and provide it in a classroom setting in the 7th or 8th grade
  2. Strengthen employer engagement to better align CTE programs and courses with high-wage industry-needed skills
  3. Update the list of high-demand programs, strengthen the review of local labor demand data and clarify laws to help reduce the skills gap
  4. Expand the number of CTE dual-credit opportunities to increase the number of pathways from high school to college

Read a two-page summary (PDF) of audit results.


While some high school students pursue a bachelor’s degree after graduation, others are looking for good jobs that do not require four years of college or university education. Many mid-level-skill jobs, in industries as diverse as robotics and computer programming, carpentry and medical technology, pay well and require no more than two years of education from a community or technical college.

Students can shorten that time by taking college-level CTE courses while in high school. Opportunities also exist for some CTE students to enter into apprenticeships or other mid-level jobs right out of high school. However, Washington employers report being unable to fill many of their mid-level-skill openings. The audit looked into why this might be happening, and how to better prepare students for those jobs.

Improve guidance

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and district CTE officials said many students and their parents are unaware of the many careers and jobs that pay well but may not require a four-year degree. This lack of awareness can be a problem when students plan for careers after high school and select the most relevant CTE courses.

According to educational research, a major reason that students drop out of high school is they cannot see the connection between their high school courses and a job. Career-focused educational models recommend that schools help students explore the many career options that are available to them in a comprehensive way in the 7th or 8th grade.

Strengthen employer engagement

Businesses report difficulty finding job candidates with the technical skills they need. More coordinated outreach through CTE advisory committees would strengthen school districts’ ability to incorporate the skills employers need into coursework. The CTE courses schools currently offer do not always reflect the skills and trades most in demand.

To prepare students for the postsecondary world of education and work, the Workforce Board, OSPI and the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) can do more to ensure that schools and colleges strengthen their engagement with employers. Establishing a systematic approach to engagement could achieve three benefits:

  • Better aligning industry expectations across college and district CTE curricula
  • Reducing some of the duplicative effort employers expend by serving on multiple committees
  • Allowing regional employers to reach a wider group of schools and colleges.

Update and clarify

OSPI currently lacks an updated list of statewide high-demand programs. State law requires OSPI to work with the Workforce Board, SBCTC and the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council to develop such a list. Its purpose is to help inform school districts about what types of programs are needed. When districts want to propose additional CTE programs, state law requires them to give OSPI evidence of high local demand for relevant skills when they seek approval for those programs. To ensure that each district’s CTE programs help address the state’s skills gap, OSPI reviews this evidence before approving the district’s CTE plans.

OSPI could strengthen the approval process for new and existing programs if it consistently reviewed actual labor market data or analysis that is sufficient to demonstrate high demand. Collecting and reviewing this type of evidence for all CTE programs, and having the Legislature define key terms in the state’s CTE statutes, would help OSPI better assess whether district CTE programs are helping to address the skills gap.

Expand pathways

Students can take CTE courses in high school that align with similar courses in college programs, allowing them to gain “dual credit” at the college level. This dual credit is typically achieved through an agreement between one high school and one college. While all colleges are required to give equivalent credit, some may only award the credit as an elective. High school CTE courses accepted by one college might not be accepted toward the same CTE program at another college. This forces students to retake courses to gain full credit. The content and the number of these agreements between school districts and colleges can vary significantly across the state because they are managed and negotiated between the faculty of individual colleges and high schools – a time-consuming and costly process. Indeed, the state lacks a mechanism to develop statewide agreements for CTE that could serve many districts and colleges more efficiently.

Developing a statewide approach to these inter-school agreements could increase the number of dual-credit opportunities for students while also reducing administrative costs to school districts and colleges.


We recommend the Legislature:

  1. Require OSPI to establish a model course framework required for all students in the 7th or 8th grade to increase awareness of the multiple career paths available through CTE
  2. Require the Workforce Board to establish a workgroup that is funded by the Legislature and consists of staff from the Workforce Board, OSPI and SBCTC, to address statewide articulation and employer engagement
  3. Revise statute to:
  •  Define the terms “skills gap” and “high wage”
  •  Require districts to submit evidence of high local labor demand for existing CTE programs

We recommend the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction:

  1. Emphasize to school counselors the importance of discussing CTE and apprenticeship paths with students
  2. Update the list of high-demand CTE programs
  3. Strengthen requirements to assess whether CTE programs correspond with local high demand

We recommend the Workforce Board:

  1. Enhance the Career Bridge website

We recommend the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges:

  1. Share with OSPI and the Workforce Board the labor market data and analysis that colleges and SBCTC consider when developing CTE programs and courses

Related work

This report is related to other performance audits conducted in recent years. You might be interested in:

Workforce Development: Identifying CTE Student Outcomes (pdf, 740 kb), published in December 2016

Workforce Development System: Identifying Overlap, Duplication and Fragmentation (pdf, 1.7 mb), published in August 2015