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Districts Ahead of States in Raising School Standards

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Although many legislatures and state boards of education have attracted attention recently by upgrading standards for high-school graduation--or saying they plan to--more than half of the nation's school districts have already acted to raise their academic requirements.

The local districts are generally requiring students to meet standards more rigorous than those called for by the states, and officials are putting those changes into effect more quickly than are the state boards, which in a number of cases are proposing to initiate their new requirements several years from now.

A survey released this spring by the National Center for Education Statistics
(nces) showed that 53 percent of school districts nationwide have in the past three years increased the number of credits they require in so-called core subjects. Another 38 percent of the districts plan to implement new standards by 1985, according to the survey. (See Education Week, May 11, 1983.)

District superintendents say they are raising their standards beyond what one official terms the "bare-bones minimum" of state mandates in order to:

Better prepare students for work and college, with an eye to the upgraded admission requirements at public colleges and universities;

Encourage low-achieving students to take more difficult courses that will enable them to pass minimum-competency tests; and

Restore the academic rigor lost during the "permissive period" of the 1960's.

District officials acknowledge that the state boards have been "setting an agenda" for them by asking for more emphasis on the "academic core"--particularly on mathematics and science--and by setting, in some cases for the first time, a "bottom line" beneath which academic standards must not fall. But the officials add that they see the state mandates as a starting point, rather than a model, for tightening standards.

Louise V. Masline, assistant superintendent for instructional services for the Brandywine (Del.) School District, points out that even though her district this year moved to raise high-school graduation standards and will implement them by 1985, "the minimum-level re-quirements to be set by the state board are admirable because they provide a basic level that all districts can look to."

"Those districts that have already moved to raise their standards will feel that there is some consensus and support and that they are not going it alone," she adds.

State requirements, she says, reinforce the message that society is sending to the schools: "All students, not just the select few, will need to have more and better skills, particularly in mathematics and science, so that they can function in the highly technologized world that will exist 25 years from now." The district had a broad agenda and strong pressure to impose stringent requirements from the business community as well, Ms. Maslin says.

'Reach for the Ceiling'

The state standards "try to provide a floor," she says, but the Brandywine district, which is located in metropolitan Wilmington, "wanted to reach for the ceiling."

Such a "floor" has also been provided in Washington State, where the state board of education announced last month that students must have at least 48 credits to graduate from high school. The average school district in the state, however, already requires students to have taken at least 60 credits of study, according to Alfred F. Rasp, director of testing and evaluation for the state department of education.

Mr. Rasp says that the average district fell short of new state requirements only in the areas of mathematics and laboratory science.

In Connecticut, which is considering legislation to require at least 18 credits for graduation, all but one of the state's 116 districts with high-school programs already require 18 credits or more, according to Kenneth A. Lester, coordinator of the curriculum-development unit for the state department of education.

"The mode, median, and mean in the state is 20 credits," Mr. Lester says, noting that several districts have recently raised their standards, effective with the graduating class of 1986.

In Delaware, seven of the state's 17 school districts that offer nonvocational high-school programs meet or exceed the new upgraded state standards that will "in all probability" be adopted by the state board of education in July, according to Randall L. Broyles, assistant superintendent for public instructional services for the Delaware Department of Public Instruction.

The new standards would raise the minimum requirements for graduation from 18 to 19 credits and would require that students take an additional credit in both mathematics and science.

The Lake Forest (Del.) School District raised its high-school graduation standards four years ago because students needed another year of mathematics to be able to pass the minimum-competency tests that are state-mandated, according to Margaret B. Phelps, principal of Lake Forest High School in Felton.

The same pressures led the school board in Memphis, Tenn., to add an additional year to the mathematics requirement last year, according to Callie L. Stevens, assistant superintendent of the Memphis City Schools.

Graduation standards in Memphis will have to be raised again to conform to the state board's new mandate requiring that districts raise the minimum number of credits for graduation from 18 to 20, including an additional year of both mathematics and science.

In addition, the Memphis district has a unusually stringent new requirement--approved by the school board last month--that will allow only those students with a "C" average or better to graduate, beginning with the graduating class of 1987.

Measure Approved

The Exeter Union High School District in Tulare County, Calif., also plans to put a "C"-average requirement into effect with the graduating class of 1987. The school board approved the measure in March.

A survey conducted by the Memphis Press-Scimitar estimated that if the new "C"-average requirement were put into effect this year, 34 percent of the 5,163 seniors in the district would not graduate.

The California district does not face the same prospect, according to Assistant Superintendent Larry J. Gillham. A study conducted by the district indicated, he says, that if the new requirement were put into effect in Exeter this year, only about 70 of the district's 1,000 seniors would fail to graduate.

State and district officials concur that states' moves on standards ''send a message" to districts about where to put their programmatic emphasis and that district-level actions have sent a similar message to students and the public about the changing academic climate. But they note that because state boards and legislators are sometimes more concerned with "numbers" than with "what is being taught," they may disregard other equally important factors in improving schools.

"The numbers are symbolic and something the public understands," says David W. Gordon, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and assessment for the California department of education. But what is most important, he adds, is the content of the courses.

Lawrence L. Nyland, superintendent of the Pasco (Wash.) School District, sees the new standard-setting trend, at least partially, as a desire to be "part of the national momentum" and "to do something visible." But rather than set new high-school graduation standards, Mr. Nyland says, the state board of education in Washington might have launched a new effort to "identify positive school programs, improve staff development, and disseminate information on successful practice."

"If you do a lot of things, a lot of good things start to happen," he adds. "To improve, a school district can't depend on one thing, such as raising graduation standards."

When the Sacramento Unified School District raised its graduation standards last month following a year-long study supported by the Danforth Foundation, it was only one change out of many, according to Superintendent E. Thomas Giugni. But he believes that the raised graduation standards can "improve public attitudes" toward the district and help it compete more effectively with private schools, as well as upgrade the quality of education in the system and improve student preparation for work and college.

But such salutary effects of higher standards may not materialize, many district officials worry, if they cannot resolve the main problem the changes pose: where to find additional qualified teachers, and how to pay for them.

It is difficult to predict where all the momentum for raised graduation standards will lead, district officials and observers say. But most agree it will continue for the foreseeable future.

"We're likely to see new excellence reports every 60 to 90 days for the next eight to ten months," says Chris Pipho, deputy director of the information clearinghouse at the Education Commission of the States, but at some point, the cycle will change, he says, and "another crowd will take over the steering wheel" and start moving "to the other side of the road."

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