Southern New Jersey has some of the best secondary vocational programs in the state. There are always more students applying for our full-time technical high schools than there are places available, and enrollment in vocational programs statewide has soared.

But when the New Jersey Department of Education issues its school performance report, measuring college and career readiness, these schools - and career-training programs at other area high schools - don't get a fair shake.

The state's report card gives schools credit for students who perform well in Advanced Placement classes and on the SAT and PSAT tests, but it doesn't take into account career programs. That makes no sense, since these programs do more to foster "career readiness" than traditional college-prep tracts.

For instance, the ironworkers union actively recruits students from the welding program at Cape May County Technical High School, and teacher Thomas Jackson says he can't keep up with the demand of employers looking for students with American Welding Society certification.

But the school gets no credit on the state's report for the number of students who have earned that certification, just as other schools get no credit for industry-recognized certifications in such fields as auto technology, plumbing, HVAC, child care or computer science.

You can see how that would irk the educators who are driving these successful programs. But why should it matter to the rest of us?

Well, for one thing, the state's reports simply aren't useful if they don't fairly measure a school's performance. But the more important answer is that by failing to recognize these programs, the state is failing to promote an educational trend it should be encouraging.

College is not for everyone. That fact only becomes clearer when you look at rising college costs and average student loan debt, which now tops $29,000 per graduate. For many students, skilled trades are a better alternative than starting their work lives in that kind of debt.

Even for students who do go on to college, learning a trade or earning work-readiness certification can mean a good-paying, part-time job to help defray those costs.

Including these programs in its school assessments would be one more way for the state to encourage students to think about such alternatives.