Tougher High School Standards Signal Greater Demands on Students

But New York shift prompts concern about funding such change

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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

"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.

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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.

"How willing is the staff going to be to assume all this new burden while reevaluating what they're doing?" says Saul Bruckner, principal of the Brooklyn high school. "You're talking about something that is contrary to human nature."

But other officials say money isn't the main problem. The effort to raise standards will force everybody involved in teaching, from principals to teachers and parents, to be more accountable to the children.

The call for higher standards isn't limited to secondary education. Board of Regents officials say they are developing more demanding requirements for elementary students too.

"I think it's a cop-out, the notion that we can't do it because we don't have enough money," says Jerry Cioffi, principal of Prospect Height High School in the overwhelmingly black Crown Height section of Brooklyn. "It's about time we prepared students to live in the 21st century - we sell the kids very short." Cioffi says the tougher standards are a "good opportunity for systematic change," not only in high school but also in elementary and middle schools so "they send us kids who can read on grade levels."

"It's terribly important that we not take these problems on the backs of the students," agrees Norman Wechsler, principal of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, saying that educators should demand the highest standards regardless of funding. "Kids shouldn't get caught in the crossfire."

Wechsler takes pride in having doubled the number of students who take the rigorous Regents exam during his three-year tenure. At his school, which a few years ago was so beset by problems it was on the brink of closing down, 60 of the more than 300 graduating seniors are expected to earn Regents diplomas.

The Regents tests were created in 1879 as a standard for colleges to evaluate high school graduates. In the 1970s, the Regents created less demanding competency exams so that students not planning to go to college would still have basic skills required by an employer.

But the system led to a "second-class testing system," according to New York's commissioner of education, Richard P. Mills: Only a minority of the state's students earned a Regents-endorsed diploma while the rest obtained "local" diplomas that are far less highly regarded by competitive colleges and businesses alike.

"Just to have some kids take the exams isn't fair," says Pina, the Bronx high school senior. "Everybody has the same brain."

The Board's decision will require every student to pass four Regents-level exams - in English, math, social studies, and science - to graduate. Students who do not pass will not get a diploma.

The bottom line

The Regents plan is to be phased in starting in September, and the goal is that students, in order to graduate in 2001 and after, will have to earn a grade of 65 or higher in the four subjects.

Officials say it will be expensive to adapt curriculum and assessments and train teachers - an estimated $500 million could be added to the $10.5 billion public education budget next year. But they say people will be more inclined to pay for an improved system, an assertion many view with skepticism.

"We're not going to tell the public to pay more for more of the same but for something new, more promising, more productive - better," Hayden says.

Noreen Connell, of the Educational Priorities Panel in New York, agrees. Her group was created in the midst of New York City's fiscal crisis in the 1970s to monitor the impact of budget and administrative decisions on students. Raising standards, she says, will force teachers and principals to be more accountable to the students or be removed - something that doesn't happen enough in New York City, she says.

"It will put a strain on the system, but it's a good strain," says Ms. Connell, whose group is composed of 27 civic organizations. "If you think that poor children can learn at the same level as their peers - and they do - then the people working with them will have to work harder. This situation is better than no stress at all." The decision, Connell says, will encourage increases in funding.

"If you allow education to become a job and a gold mine for contractors, and the education of the children comes last, who wants to put more money into the system?" she asks. "But if the system is improving and the money is well spent on instruction, investment will lead to good results."

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