Starting this year, entering freshmen attending public high schools face tough decisions about their futures. They must decide, ready or not, what they want to do when they grow up. At the very least, they must decide if they want to attend a university, a community college or skip all post-high school training and take their chances in an economy that’s increasingly geared toward a highly trained workforce. In response to legislation passed last year, the Louisiana Department of Education has designed curriculum and graduation tracks that steer students in three different directions: to four-year colleges, two-year colleges and technical programs or to a “career” track. The latter, of course, is designed to hold on to those contemplating quitting school to avoid advanced academic classes.

The Louisiana Legislature, with Gov. Jindal’s support, required the “career” track last year with the intent of reducing the state’s high school dropout rate. Proponents of the law wanted students that weren’t “college material” to get a degree of some kind. The legislation counters national trends for education reform in light of job trends and smacks of the kind of discredited tracking that went out in the 1970s because minorities and other at-risk groups tend to populate the less rigorous tracks. Nonetheless, the concept gained overwhelming support in the Legislature, despite warnings from educators that a watered down diploma could derail the state’s chances of winning millions of dollars in “Race to the Top” federal funding for reform-minded school districts.

Superintendent Paul Pastorek, a staunch proponent of raising standards, not lowering them, opposed the legislation to no avail. Left with no choice, education officials designed three different curriculum pathways and two diplomas for high school students beginning with 9th graders in 2010-’11. Many districts obtained one year waivers, including New Orleans’ Recovery School District, but eventually all students will be subjected to the new requirements.

The new requirements are a complicated labyrinth of “either/ors” that likely will require the employment of additional school counselors to keep straight, but the department has managed to turn questionable legislation into something that resembles good sense. Education officials fashioned requirements that prevent the full scale social promotion of yesteryear, while still allowing students to avoid the higher expectations of a college preparatory curriculum that reformers favor.

 Some proponents of the career track legislation have criticized the new requirements for expecting too much of the “career” students and asked the state’s attorney general to decide if the new rules fallow the law. The attorney general, however, doesn’t have the authority to force the department of education to revise its requirements.

For now, at least, all high school students, regardless of their future education plans, must show some proficiency in English, math and science or social studies to graduate. The new rules require all students, including “career” students, to score at least “fair” on “end-of-course” standardized tests in English II or III, Algebra I or geometry and biology or American history. The new tests replace the state’s Graduation Exit Exam for entering freshmen this year.

The easier track also requires units of “career” instruction.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recently adopted the new rules for graduation even though the law’s sponsors Sen. Robert Kostelka and Rep. Jim Fannin object to “career” students taking the end-of-course tests in English, math, science and social studies. In a letter written to Attorney General James D. Caldwell in November they said the new rules violate the law’s intent. “The legislature intended that these students pass end-of-course tests in the Career and Technical courses, not in the same courses as required of students in other graduation pathways,” they wrote.

The legislators asked the AG’s office to rule before BESE adopted the rules, but a ruling wasn’t issued in advance of BESE’s decision. The sponsors said Pastorek deliberately undermined the law.

End-of-course testing is the newest testing device implemented by the department. These tests are designed to ensure that schools across the state are consistently providing quality instruction and that students are learning the material.

Both the Graduate Exit Exam and EOC tests are attempts to prevent the kind of social promotion that all too frequently allowed Louisiana schools in the past to graduate functionally illiterate students. EOC tests “will consistently hold teachers and students accountable across the state,” the department says on its Web site.

The curriculum pathways become increasingly more advanced depending on the student’s post graduation plans.

University bound students take the most advanced English, science and math courses. Students planning to graduate with the “College and Career Diploma” are eligible for one of the state’s two TOPS scholarship programs, depending on their grades and curriculum choices. Those opting to get a “Career Diploma” are not eligible for TOPS.

The Louisiana Core 4 follows a curriculum required for students attending four-year universities. The Basic Core requires courses designed for entry into community colleges or technical schools. The “career” curriculum is designed for students who don’t want more training after high school.

Few young people know their talents and interests well enough to make such life-altering decisions at 15 and 16.

Unfortunately, given the choice, many students likely will take the path of least resistance, which is why educators tend to favor tougher requirements for everyone.

On the other hand, in an uncertain economy a good portion are likely to choose the middle road, which leads to community colleges and technical programs. The department of education says that statistics show that 55 percent of future jobs will require two-year college degrees or advanced training while only 21 percent will require four-year degrees.

The beauty of these new rules is that any student who decides later she wants to become an engineer, an accountant or a college professor can transfer to the university from a community college and not be penalized for making the wrong choice at 16. Furthermore, universities will get better prepared students who can withstand the rigor of their programs.

Better yet, even the “career” students can change direction and enroll in open-enrollment two-year college programs, most of which require college-level English even for certificates in technical programs such as medical coding or office careers. Since students will have been forced to show some proficiency in high school math and English to earn a high school degree, they will have a chance of succeeding.

All in all, there’s a lot to like about these new rules.