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Introduction & Purpose  

Exploratory is a program designed to be offered to all ninth-grade students to ensure that they understand and engage in the educational pathway options available to them at their high schools.  The Exploratory process is intended to provide students with a high-quality educational experience that exposes them to a variety of college and career pathways. These pathways may include designated programs such as Career Technical Education State Approved Chapter 74 programs, CTE Partnership Programs, Career Connections (Perkins Only – N74 programs), Innovation Career Pathways, Early College, as well as other high quality local program and coursework choices. Student Exploratory experiences should include applied learning that introduces them to career opportunities and authentic experience specific to each program option. At completion of Exploratory, students will be able to: 

  • Identify the pathways available to them at their school; 
  • Identify potential career opportunities available to them through each pathway;
  • Understand each pathway’s student outcomes i.e., career credentials, work-based learning including cooperative education, articulated college credit, transcripted college credit, Advanced Placement and how those can support their goals for post-high school;
  • Analyze and evaluate the pathways as they relate to their interest and skills; and 
  • Create a reflection and course plan through their MyCAP that aligns with their interests. 

When to Offer Exploratory 

Offering Exploratory ensures that all students have a full understanding of the programs and courses available to them to pursue their interests and goals for post-graduation. All schools are encouraged to develop a program that provides all students with access to explore, engage, and select a program of study that aligns to their needs and interests. This is especially critical to help students understand and differentiate schools’ various program offerings.  Schools must have a Chapter 74 Approved Exploratory if they have five or more Chapter 74 approved CTE programs.  At this time, Chapter 74 Exploratory reporting and funding is limited to those schools which have five or more Chapter 74 approved CTE programs. 

Content & Design 

Delivery Models

Throughout the Exploratory experience, students receive instruction from program teachers and engage in comprehensive career development activities and individualized career planning.  Students will experience Exploratory differently depending on the number of programs and program types available at their high school.  There are three models for Exploratory, depending on the school context.  In all models, all 9th grade students participate.  The models are: 

  • Model 1: Exploratory at a regional or municipal “wall-to-wall” CTE High School;

  • Model 2: Exploratory in district high school with Chapter 74 and no other state designations; and

  • Model 3: Exploratory in district high school with Chapter 74 and other state designations, including schools with Academy models

Early exploration of career pathways and available programs may begin in middle school grades. Exploratory programs begin in 9th grade. 

Model 1: Exploratory at a regional or municipal “wall-to-wall” CTE High School

In this school context, students have access to many CTE Chapter 74 programs. Students will explore their CTE program choices in detail, and ultimately select a CTE program to pursue. Students should understand the opportunities for work-based learning and available industry recognized credentials for each program. Students should understand the potential career and postsecondary education opportunities related to each program. 

Model 2: Exploratory in district high school with CTE Chapter 74 and no other state designations

In this school context, students have access to CTE Chapter 74 programs and the general high school program of study. Students will explore their CTE Chapter 74 program choices and may choose to pursue an available CTE Chapter 74 Program. Students should understand that completion of a CTE Chapter 74 program leads to an opportunity to earn one or more industry recognized credentials for entry level employment readiness in addition to college-ready high school outcomes.  Students should experience additional local options, understanding the electives and other opportunities unique to their high school. 

Model 3: Exploratory in district high school with CTE Chapter 74 and other state designations

In this school context, students have access to CTE Chapter 74 programs in addition to state designated Innovation Career Pathways and/or Early College, and the general high school program of study. In this Exploratory model, students will explore the various pathway program choices and may choose to pursue an available state designated pathway program. Students should understand the specific outcomes for each of the state designated programs, including that completion of a(n):

  • CTE Chapter 74 program leads to an opportunity to earn one or more industry recognized credentials (IRC) for entry level employment readiness in addition to college-ready high school outcomes;
  • Innovation Career Pathway program provides students with an opportunity to engage in work-based learning and/or a capstone project that helps them have a depth of knowledge in a particular career sector, and advanced coursework that will advance them in post-secondary education in that career sector; and
  • Early College programs provide students with the opportunity to earn at least 12 college credits aligned to the general education foundation block, which supports transferability across the MA public post-secondary system.

Students should also understand additional local options including electives and opportunities unique to their high school. 

Program Design & Supports 

Exploratory should be offered to all 9th graders. As appropriate, and as dictated by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP)  and 504 Plan and English Learner supports, accommodations and/or modifications should be made to ensure all students have access to explore the school’s pathway options. 

Students may enter school with a preference for certain programs or coursework.  Exploratory supports student exploration of options they previously may not have considered. As programs are designed, it is critical to consider how the design will promote equity and encourage students, especially underrepresented student groups (for example, students with disabilities or multi-lingual leaners) to recognize themselves as belonging in any experience. Students should gain exposure to all options. 

Program Content 

Use the following guidelines for content related to each program type: 

For CTE Chapter 74 Programs and Career Connections Programs:

Students should meaningfully engage in authentic work related to each program specific Framework to: 

  • Complete one or more required applied hands-on real-world projects aligned to grade level Mathematics, Science, and English Language Arts skills; 
  • Learn about career opportunities aligned to the pathways and the specific ways (for example, industry recognized credentials) each pathway prepares students for one or more of those opportunities.
  • Practice personal safety, including appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE), safety for others, and protect the safety and security of the learning environment; and
  • Identify and prepare tools, devices and equipment for specific activities, tasks and/or projects in the individual program area.

For Innovation Career Pathways and Early College 

Exploratory should help students to understand the courses, learning experiences, work-based learning including capstone or internship, and advanced coursework they would complete through the program. Exploratory should help students to understand the distinct benefits and outcomes of any coursework, pathway, and/or program(s) available to them. 

For Local Programs and Coursework 

These are locally determined based on the outcome of pathways and should help students to understand what their experience and outcomes would be upon completion of courses or course sequences available through the high school program of study. 

Alongside specific program exploration, in coordination with students’ MyCAP, Exploratory should include opportunities for student to develop their own personal/social, career, and academic goals and reflect on how their Exploratory experiences align. 


Exploratory includes sufficient time during the school day for students to experience the programs and coursework available to them. In approved Chapter 74 Exploratory programs, this includes a minimum of one-half year estimated to be approximately 120 hours at minimum. The 120 hours is inclusive of all school day Exploratory activities/coursework. Schools should also consider the number of programs and ability to incorporate all Exploratory goals when determining the appropriate duration of Exploratory.  

Depending on the number of programs available and other factors at your school, the design of exploratory could include having students experience all programs briefly and then selecting a subset to explore more deeply. The number of programs students spend time in, their length, and how those programs are chosen, are local decisions that should be guided by policies and practices to ensure students have quality exposure to future pathways.   

Family & Community Engagement in Exploratory

Exploratory allows students and families to understand their options. Engaging with families and the community presents an important opportunity for all. Establishing strong family engagement programs assists with communication and placement into students’ choice programs, which align to career aspirations. 

Consider these strategies: 

  • Family nights or coffee events to share about the programs and/or tour the facilities; and 
  • Ensure the district’s informational materials and events are accessible to all students and families, including those whose primary language is not English

For more strategies and materials, see:  Career & Technical Education (CTE): What Families & Students Need to Know.

Role of School Counseling & MyCAP 

Exploratory experiences should be deeply embedded in a student’s MyCAP process. School counselors and other school staff should routinely check in with students and families throughout the Exploratory process to help make connections between interest surveys, reflections, and their Exploratory experiences and ensure these are documented in the student’s MyCAP portfolio. Ultimately, these reflections help students to determine their preferences and interests.   

Counselors, advisors, and other school staff should support students in determining their priorities in choosing a program or pathway, which can help students in considering programs that may have similar career pathways.  This can be done through activities like career interest surveys. Students’ understanding of related career pathways is important, especially when there is high interest for certain program areas.

Strong Exploratory programs ensure that students understand the long-term significance of program selection and offer all participating students a well-designed student-led career planning process as a support to program selection. Use of an online platform, such as MEFA Pathway, is strongly encouraged for the development of the student’s individual career and academic plan which students will continue to work on throughout their high school experience.   

Program Selection following Exploratory 

Following Exploratory, students must have the opportunity to opt in to programs of their choice. Schools are expected to develop a process that allows for students to identify their choices and support placement into those choices.  This placement process should be based primarily on student interest and alignment with their MyCAP. If more students choose a program than there are seats, the school should develop a process that allows for equitable access into the program. For schools that deem it is necessary to implement further selective criteria for program placement, note the following:

“schools and programs whose admission policies include selective criteria may apply the criteria only when there are more applicants than available seats. Such criteria may not consider a student’s record of excused absences from school, or minor behavior or disciplinary infractions. For purposes of 603 CMR 4.03(6)(a), a “minor behavior or disciplinary infraction” means any student conduct other than conduct for which suspension or expulsion was imposed pursuant to M.G.L. c.71 §37H or §37H1/2, or for which suspension or expulsion for more than 10 days was imposed pursuant to M.G.L. c.71 §37H3/4. Resident students who meet the minimum requirements for admission shall be admitted prior to acceptance of any non-resident students seeking the same program.”

Further, while some students may have benefitted from pre-exposure to program areas, for many students, Exploratory may be their first experience with a given program area.  This should be taken into consideration in developing program selection practices, so all students have equal access regardless of pre-exposure.  

Evaluating Exploratory Programs

Schools should regularly evaluate their Exploratory programs to ensure rigorous, inclusive, culturally responsive industry and grade level content. This includes reviewing program placement by disaggregated student groups and ensuring that practices designed to help students do so. Program evaluations should strive to determine the degree to which students, particularly those underrepresented in certain programs and fields, fully understand and are able to access the pathways most aligned to their interests and goals.  Student and family feedback is part of any quality evaluation.