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Give the state Board of Regents an A-plus for its approval of alternative technical courses that will help vocational high school students stay on career tracks while still meeting tough new state standards.

The new option, already welcomed by Buffalo school administrators and expected to be used widely throughout the state, can mean graduation in four years instead of five for high school students who choose trade careers over college.

That's welcome recognition for the value of vocational schooling, the kind that can prepare young men and women for the technical jobs that will fuel our changing economy but might otherwise go begging. College isn't for everyone, and vocational education offers just as valid a path to the future.

The decision by the Regents to allow districts to design equally challenging technical courses as substitutes for the mandated Regents math exam offers what Buffalo School Superintendent Marion Canedo termed a "more flexible and more reasonable" approach. The courses -- engineering or electronics-based calculation rather than college-preparatory math, for example -- must be just as demanding but can be more fully integrated into career-based training.

The toughening of state educational standards was and is a good idea. Last year's seniors had to pass Regents English to graduate, and this year's also must pass Regents math. By 2003, five Regents exams will be required for graduation.

Vocational students, too, must be challenged to higher levels of reading and reasoning. Substandard educations don't work, anywhere. But vocational students will find even greater value in equally tough courses developed more closely as tools of a trade.

The move also should help educators meet a looming problem. Last year, about 85 percent of the state's high school students passed a Regents math exam, in the last year it wasn't an absolute requirement for a diploma. But vocational students struggled -- although Hutchinson-Central Technical High School posted impressive scores, no seniors at Burgard Vocational High School passed the test and fewer than half succeeded at Emerson Vocational and Riverside Institute of Technology.

Burgard officials noted that the school simply hasn't had any recent tradition of college-preparatory math. Given its mission, that shouldn't be a problem. But the Regents requirement made it a huge one.

This week's action offers a chance not only to fix that problem, but to enhance the education provided at Burgard and other vocational schools. There remains a challenge in designing Regents-acceptable courses, but the option is a good one and its designers deserve praise.

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