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N.Y. Regents Pass Controversial Plan To Increase Graduation Requirements

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New York--New York's Board of Regents has approved high-school graduation requirements that are among the most rigorous in the nation--but not without misgivings over the portion that eventually will require students to take two to five years of foreign-language instruction.

"I believe we have gone overboard," said Willard Genrich, the Buffalo-area builder who chairs the board and led an unsuccessful attempt to reduce the language requirement at the Regents' meeting late last month. "We are mandating foreign-language proficiency for three million children ... despite the fact that, after intensive study by staff, we cannot define what proficiency means."

Under a sweeping "action plan" for elementary and secondary education unanimously approved by the Regents, all nonhandicapped students would eventually complete at least two years of training in a second language between kindergarten and 9th grade. Upon completion, they would have the option of taking a proficiency examination in that language. If they passed, they would receive one academic credit toward graduation; a total of 18.5 credits would be required.

Students would not be expected to take additional language training if they sought only local high-school diplomas. But those seeking the more demanding, state-endorsed Regents diplomas--about 45 percent of graduates statewide--would take an additional two or three courses, with the exact number depending on whether they had passed the proficiency test. Only three other states and the District of Columbia now have foreign-language requirements, and none of those demands more than two years of study, according to a recent survey by the Education Commission of the States.

Requirements Debated

The Board of Regents still must adopt formal regulations putting the foreign-language requirements into effect. And those requirements would not fully affect graduates until the early 1990's. But this did not prevent the Regents from heatedly debating the issue at the March 23 meeting in Manhattan.

The advocates of the new rules insisted that knowledge of Spanish, French, and other languages was increasingly important in international markets. Moreover, they said the three-year language requirement enhanced the prestige of the Regents diploma, which is intended primarily for college-bound students.

Opponents argued, on the other hand, that the new requirements would force New York State to spend at least $58 million to hire additional language teachers. The money could be better spent, they said, on other goals, such as preventing teen-agers from dropping out of school.

They added that the additional requirements would discourage many students from seeking Regents diplomas. And this, they said, would widen the gap between academic and nonacademic students under New York's dual-diploma system.

At one point during the debate, one Regent, Kenneth B. Clark, the prominent social scientist whose studies have been widely quoted in civil-rights lawsuits, suggested that school officials might tend to steer minority youths away from advanced foreign-language study.

When Mr. Clark asked what makes the difference between students who pursue foreign-language courses and those who select less demanding courses, Commissioner of Education Gordon M. Ambach responded, "Their personal choice."

"Well, who helps them make that choice?" persisted Mr. Clark.

Buoyant Mood

Despite the debate over foreign-language study, the board members' mood was generally buoyant by the end of the meeting. Their optimism was increased by a formal announcement that state legislative leaders had agreed to a $445-million increase in school aid, a move they agreed would make it easier for schools to put their proposal into effect. The increase, later boosted to $460 million, is the largest in the state's history and will bring New York's education budget to $5.3 billion in the next school year.

Other highlights of the plan:

All high-school graduates will eventually be required to complete at least two years of science and mathematics, rather than the single year now required. They also will be required to complete at least one year of art or music, and a fourth year of social studies devoted to economics and to "participation in government." In addition to required subjects, students will complete several prescribed elective sequences.

Students will also take additional state-sponsored tests. These will include 6th-grade examinations in science and social studies to supplement current tests in reading and mathematics. Secondary students will take a new competency examination in science to supplement tests in reading, writing, and math. They also will take three new social-studies tests covering global studies as well as state and American history and government.

Students will be allowed to satisfy up to 6.5 of the required 18.5 credits by taking written and oral exams in particular subjects, rather than formal courses. An attempt to amend the "action plan" to reduce the number of credits that could be satisfied through testing barely failed by a vote of 7 to 7.

Teachers would be paid for up to 10 extra days of work, phased in over the next five years. This time would be devoted to inservice training and curriculum development. The estimated cost of the teacher program, which requires legislative approval, is $401 million.

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