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Tougher High School Standards Signal Greater Demands on Students

But New York shift prompts concern about funding such change

By Isabelle de PommereauSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 1996


Vonalis Pina doesn't buy into the deeply entrenched notion that many minority kids can't make it to college.

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"It's like saying climbing a mountain is hard," says the teenager, who's heading to Swarthmore College in the fall. "If you're brought up with the idea it's going to be too hard, you're not going to make it."

So it's no wonder Ms. Pina, a student at the mostly Latino and African-American DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, welcomes New York State's recent decision to require all high school students to pass rigorous exams to graduate.

But in Brooklyn, Saul Bruckner isn't so enthusiastic. The principal of the Edward Murrow High School says the decision has fueled too much hype over standards but not enough over what needs to happen to enable students to reach those higher goals, particularly poor kids.

"Just increasing standards doesn't lead to children achieving these standards," Mr. Bruckner says. "I think the state is serious in its desire and goals, but I'm not so sure the people who make headlines have the ability to get the funds."

Pina and Bruckner sit on opposite sides of a fierce debate raging in New York and elsewhere as states, concerned that too many high school graduates can perform neither in college nor in an increasingly global job market, move to raise graduation standards, toughen up the tests students must take to receive diplomas and, in some cases, buttress college-admission requirements.

At issue isn't so much the merits of raising standards as the thornier question of what it takes to enable students to attain those new standards: more money, more accountability, or both?

New York and Maryland are on the forefront of the effort to raise school standards, says Christopher Cross of the Council for Basic Education in Washington.

In an effort to improve the quality of the curriculum, the New York Board of Regents voted in April to require that in order to graduate, all public high school students must pass a set of four rigorous examinations, taken throughout high school. Currently, students are required to pass a series of lower-level competency tests, although a minority of more advanced students take a tougher battery of exams which yield a more highly regarded "Regents" diploma.

"The real problem is that low expectations had subverted our best intentions," says Carl Hayden, chancellor of the Board of Regents. "Things will be vastly different now that we're eliminating the easy route to graduate."

In Maryland, the state Board of Education agreed in January to develop more challenging course-related exams that students must pass before graduation.

Other states are following suit, albeit less aggressively. If Gov. Tommy Thompson's proposal for a mandatory high school exit exam goes through, Wisconsin would become the 18th state to require some form of exit exams. In Georgia, the Board of Regents is considering setting tougher college admission standards.

The right direction

"New York is absolutely headed in the right direction," says Katie Haycock of the Washington-based Education Trust. "Lots of kids can pass the tests if only you give them the courses - in the past, they were tracked away from them based on the perception they were too poor."

But critics are concerned about what they say is a major and often overlooked factor in the standards movement: money.

"If you look at the real problem, it's a resource issue all over," says Janet Petrovich of the Ford Foundation in New York. "Policy makers refuse to look at the issue - they're tough decisions, and they'd rather not make them."

"No educators in their right minds are going to say, 'lower the standards,' but we have to be careful that the resources are provided to get the students the opportunity to achieve those standards," says John Ferrandino, New York's superintendent for high schools. "Given the budget crisis, I'm a little leery."

In cities like New York, the hurdles seem overwhelming: decrepit buildings, overcrowded classes, outdated textbooks, and too few computers. Meanwhile many children don't speak English. They face myriad pressures at home that prevent them from learning. And teachers aren't trained to teach tougher courses.