Public schools go for an 'A' in education

As the new year begins, educators and state policymakers are flooding public schools with proposals, and in many cases mandates, for higher rather than just minimum academic standards.

The adoption of minimum competency tests by 40 out of the 50 states in the 1970s was a clear sign that many citizens had lost faith in the quality of public education.

But such tests had one significant drawback, said many educators. They too often fostered performance standards instead of excellence. What resulted was the prevalence of a least common educational denominator.

No longer. The academic denominator is rising.

''The fact is the minimum competency standards placed a floor above which to raise expectations. They were the first step to put teeth back into the academic diploma,'' says A. Graham Down, executive director of the Council for Basic Education in Washington, D.C.

According to Roy Forbes, an associate executive director of the Education Commission of the States (ECS), ''There's a major redefining of what is meant by minimum.''

Like boats being lifted by a rising tide, schools now appear willing and ready to ride a groundswell for improvement.

Graduation requirements. Four states (California, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Oklahoma) have all raised high-school graduation requirements. Nine states are considering doing the same in the '83-'84 academic year, with the Ohio state board of education and a Florida task force the most recent to announce such a step.

In Idaho, a commission on excellence is backing a core curriculum for all students. It includes four years of English with special attention on writing, two years of math, courses in foreign languages, humanities, economics, health, physical education, history, speech, American government, and reading. Additional courses would be required for college-bound students.

New York has established a new commission to look at the curriculum, kindergarten through Grade 12.

College admission standards. Also prompting public schools to raise academic standards is the fact that at least 12 state university systems are stiffening their admission requirements, while 15 others are considering doing likewise.

The University of California, University of Connecticut, and a number of the more established Midwest state universities are recent examples.High schools in these states must respond to these higher standards or face the ire of parents and students when college applications go out only to be met by rejection notices if required courses were not taken.

Business and economic growth. Another major stimulus to the trend toward higher academic standards is the fact that ''Business clearly sees its own interest at stake in tying education to economic growth,'' says Betty Owen, education policy adviser to Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina. ''This has forced some new coalitions that had been hard to get going before.''

Governor Hunt, along with Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV of Delaware and IBM chairman Frank Cary, will head a task force on education for economic growth sponsored by ECS. It comprises 11 governors, 11 top business leaders from around the country, several state legislators, and representatives from the sciences, education, and labor.

The task force plans to assess how well public schools are preparing students for higher skill, high-tech jobs, and then identify actions that could be taken by local and state leaders to improve instruction as well as promote partnerships among school, community, and business interests.

''The task force is a high-powered group,'' says Scott Thompson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, ''and it is very obvious its findings will have some clout in setting higher academic standards.''

Forty states have already responded to a survey sent out by Governor Hunt. Each listed steps to improve educational quality, with the emphasis clearly on revised curricula in math, science, and computer literacy.

Ms. Owen says ''We see our future, and not just in North Carolina but the nation, in high technology. A new set of reasoning skills is what we are talking about. In our state, changes raising entrance requirements in science and math have been made at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This necessarily affects how all 143 school systems in North Carolina look at their requirements.''

Teachers getting tougher. Willard H. McGuire, president of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teacher organization in the country, says, ''Many Americans have believed for years that schools were slipping in their standards, teachers were becoming too 'soft,' and so-called social-promotions (automatically passing a student to the next grade just because of attendance) were the order of the day. There is much evidence that counters those images.''

The NEA notes that two schools of thought emerged after a major 1980 study of ''social promotions'' in the Dallas public schools. One wanted them continued, while a second tended toward what eventually became the compromise: a child could be held back only once in grade levels one through three; once in the grade levels between four and six; and once during the grade levels seven and eight.

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