Then and Now—and Now What? Career and Technical Education Credential Attainment in Virginia

High school graduates

by Julie Harris and Laura Kassner
September 3, 2021

(Repost of a July 2021, post on the REL Appalachia Blog. REL AP serves educators in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia to support use of data and evidence to improve academic outcomes for students.)

In an effort to ensure that students graduate from high school ready for success in postsecondary education or the workforce, Virginia implemented a new policy that, starting in 2017, required nearly half of public school graduates to earn a career and technical education (CTE) credential. This blog shares the motivation behind the policy change, reviews findings from a study of CTE credential attainment in Virginia before and after policy implementation, and highlights ways that Virginia educators and policymakers can strengthen high school graduates’ preparation for robust career options after high school.

Virginia’s CTE policy to support career preparation

Graduating with a high school diploma is a milestone that should signify a student’s readiness for college or a career. In Virginia, high school graduates can earn an Advanced Studies diploma, which requires completion of a college preparatory curriculum, or a Standard Diploma, which does not require completion of a college preparatory curriculum. Graduates who earn the Standard diploma are less likely to attend and complete college than Advanced Studies diploma graduates.1

For students who do not attend college, career preparation in high school is particularly important. Recognizing that students earning the Standard diploma are less likely to attend college, Virginia’s leaders wanted to increase these graduates’ preparation for a career. Therefore, the state enacted a policy adding a career and technical education (CTE) credential to the requirements for graduating with a Standard diploma. The requirement went into effect for students entering grade 9 during the 2013/14 school year (with an on-time graduation year of 2017). To help graduates meet the requirement, the Virginia Board of Education approved more than 400 credentials students could earn by passing a qualifying assessment.

Investigating the policy change

The Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Appalachia partnered with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to examine which CTE credentials Standard diploma graduates earned in high school leading up to and after the legislation added a CTE credential requirement to the Standard diploma. Specifically, REL Appalachia investigated the most commonly earned CTE credentials before and after the policy change, and how the credentials varied across student characteristics and by region.


Although the percentage of Standard diploma graduates who earned at least one CTE credential increased nearly 30-fold from 2011 to 2017, it is not clear that the newly added diploma requirement was responsible for the increase. The credential attainment rate of graduates began rising before the policy went into effect, with the largest increase occurring between 2014 and 2015. In addition, there was a similar increase in credential attainment for Advanced Studies graduates, who were not subject to the new requirement. Other practices and policies in the state may have driven the increase in CTE credential attainment during this time period.
For students to receive the maximum benefits of earning a CTE credential, they need credentials that employers value. Research suggests that employers do not place the same weight on all types of credentials. From 2015 to 2017, the vast majority of Standard diploma graduates earned either the Workplace Readiness Skills or W!se Financial Literacy credential, both of which represent broad career-readiness skills.2 Other types of credentials represent narrower career skills, such as the National Nurse Aide Assessment Program, and prepare students for a specific industry or occupation. The value of general career-readiness credentials is unclear, but recent research suggests that employers do not seek out these types of credentials. 3, 4 Thus, the most commonly earned credentials may not directly strengthen graduates’ career readiness.

Next steps in ensuring college and career readiness

To better understand the impact of the Standard diploma CTE credential requirement policy, Virginia needs more information about the value of credentials, including their general value to employers and how they align with labor market opportunities. To determine the value of CTE credentials, state and local leaders can:

  • Work with local communities and employers to determine labor-market demand and education and training requirements of specific occupations. This process can help local schools and districts strengthen their credential offerings to align with the labor market.
  • Work with postsecondary institutions to identify postsecondary programmatic offerings to ensure alignment of K–12 and postsecondary opportunities, offering additional pathways for graduates after high school.
  • Coordinate with researchers to examine student outcomes associated with various credentials, including measures of success in college and careers, to more systematically understand credential value after high school.

With this additional information on the value of credentials, state leaders may consider revising the policy to ensure that high school graduates, particularly those earning Standard diplomas, are prepared for success in life after high school.

Resources for ongoing learning

This blog draws on the analysis and implications from this REL Appalachia research study. Refer to the resources below to learn more about CTE research from the REL program and credentials in Virginia and beyond.

From the REL Program

CTE credentials in Virginia and beyond

  • 21st Century Workplace Readiness Skills for the Commonwealth. This website, operated by VDOE, describes Virginia’s Workplace Readiness Skills credential, which the 2021 REL Appalachia study found was one of the two most commonly earned credentials in Virginia.
  • Economics and Personal Finance. This website, operated by VDOE, describes the W!se Financial Literacy credential and the associated Economics and Personal Finance course that is required for graduation in Virginia. The W!se Financial Literacy credential is the other of the two most commonly earned credentials in Virginia, as evidenced by the 2021 REL Appalachia study.
  • Credentials Matter. This website, operated by ExcelinEd and Burning Glass Technologies, provides links to several reports on the value of CTE credentials.


1Several studies described this finding. See, for example, D. Jonas, & M. Garland (2014). Virginia’s 2008 on-time graduation rate cohort: Four year college enrollment, persistence, and completion. Center for Innovative Technology.
2 Refer to the 21st Century Workplace Readiness Skills for the Commonwealth webpage and the Economics and Personal Finance webpage (specifically related to W!se Financial Literacy credentials), both operated by the Virginia Department of Education, for more information.
3 ExcelinED & Burning Glass Technologies (2019). Credentials matter report 1: A national landscape of high school student credential attainment compared to workforce demand. Tallahassee, FL: Authors.
4 C. Sublett, & D. Griffith (2019). How aligned is career and technical education to labor markets? Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Topics: Career and technical education Transition to postsecondary