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Not going to college? How about a 'career diploma' from high school?

The provision in Louisiana puts the state in the center of a national debate about where to set the bar for high school graduation.

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High-schoolers in Louisiana will soon be able to opt for a "career diploma" – taking some alternative courses instead of a full college-prep curriculum. The new path to graduation – expected to be signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) in the coming days – bucks a trend in which many states are cranking up academic requirements.

The legislation puts the state in the center of a national debate about where to set the bar for high school graduation.

Advocates of the new diploma option say it will keep more struggling students in school and will prepare them for jobs, technical training, or community college. Critics doubt the curriculum will be strong enough to accomplish such goals and say it shortchanges students in the long run, given the projections that a large number of future jobs will require a college degree.

The impact may ultimately depend on how well the new option is implemented by school districts.

"Not all career-tech [education] is created equal," says Mary McNaught, chief of staff at Civic Enterprises, a public-policy group in Washington. "High-quality programs offer real skills that can be used in the workplace.... At other times, it is watering down standards, and kids who are put on that track don't [gain] the skills needed to compete in the technical arenas [or] in a 21st-century economy."

As a former judge who sent many high school dropouts to prison, state Sen. Robert Kostelka (R) sponsored the bill in hopes of inspiring students who are more interested in nuts and bolts than "Beowulf." As they enter high school, many "are finding less and less relevance to the normal college-prep curriculum and [want] technical training," he says. "It's really not lowering standards; it's just another pathway ... for those that can't go the harder, more rigorous path."

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