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College-Entry Rules Spark Debate in Montana

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The Montana Board of Regents, the higher-education board for a state where populist traditions run deep, has since 1984 been moving cautiously and in stages toward raising the admission standards of its colleges and universities.

The process has generated an extended debate, in particular over the regents' proposal to require that applicants to state colleges and universities have completed a defined college-preparatory curriculum.

The debate sharpened this month, when the regents approved a set of uniform standards requiring that applicants beginning in 1990 either score at least 18 on the American College Testing Program, or have a minimum grade-point average of 2.5, or rank in the upper half of their class. Previously, the state's sole requirement for admission was that a student have a high-school diploma.

Next month, the regents are expected to vote on whether to add the standard that would deny admission to most students who had not completed a college-preparatory curriculum.

The regents' early versions of that requirement raised a cry of protest from the precollegiate educators, who have argued that it would deprive many Montanans of a college education and impose severe burdens on small, rural school districts.

Higher-education officials are saying, however, that a compromise version drafted by the regents addresses most of the local educators' concerns.

Process Began in 1984

The higher-education board began the process of reviewing its admission standards in 1984, when it "recommended'' a set of courses for college-bound students. Two years later, the panel voted to require a college-preparatory curriculum for all students planning to request state-funded scholarships, beginning this year, and for all first-time students, beginning in 1990. At that point, the regents did not mandate the specifics of the curriculum.

Writing in the current issue of Montana Schools, Robert Albrecht, the deputy commissioner of academic affairs for the Montana University System, explains that the curriculum requirement "[would] ensure that [students] are ready for college-level work in math, science, English, and so forth without spending time on catching up on material not taken in high school.''

The board's original proposal endorsed a program that would include four years of English, three years each of mathematics and social studies, two years each of laboratory sciences and a foreign language, and one year of visual or performing arts.

Neither the academic nor the curriculum standards would apply to older, "nontraditional'' students or to applicants to the state's community colleges or vocational-education centers. In addition, universities would be allowed to exempt up to 15 percent of their incoming students from the rules in order to bolster enrollment of American Indians and other minorities.

'Out of the Game'?

In anticipation of the mandatory curriculum, many schools have begun altering their programs and staffing patterns. But precisely what the college-prep curriculum should entail and how schools can help their students meet the requirements have continued to be matters of debate.

In a state with a large American-Indian population--and in which approximately 45 percent of graduates do not go on to college--the proposed rules raise questions about "whether we know how to prepare or test [those students] and, if by raising standards on the playing field, we may be pushing people out of the game,'' said Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association.

"Most parents of 9th graders aspire to have their children go to college, and consequently, most students will enroll in the courses specified in the regents' admission standards, even though it may not be the best route for them,'' said Fred Anderson, principal of Custer County District High School, who has been an outspoken critic of the regents' initial proposal.

Mr. Anderson said he was also concerned that mandating more advanced courses, such as in mathematics, would inevitably lead to their dilution.

Paul Dunham, the director of research services for the board of regents, added that "schools, particularly the smaller ones, were concerned with their ability to provide the number and breadth of offerings in visual and performing arts.''

They were also concerned, he said, about their ability to retain sufficient teachers to meet the foreign-language requirement.

In response to such concerns, the regents modified the proposed curriculum this month, but have not yet elected to adopt it.

Under the new version, students would be given a choice of taking either a foreign language, computer science, visual and performing arts, or vocational education. The plan will be voted on when the regents hold a joint meeting with the board of public education in June.

The precollegiate-education board has raised questions about the effects of the regents' plan on its separate effort, known as "Project Excellence,'' to raise school-accreditation standards.

Under a plan being considered by the precollegiate board, schools would be asked to develop innovative educational programs as part of the accreditation system.

Rather than require a set of specified courses, said Alan Nicholson, the board chairman, the new system would enable schools to offer a broader range of courses designed to achieve the same end. "The hope is that schools will move toward finding new ways of improving student outcomes,'' said Mr. Nicholson.

The board chairman said he was optimistic that the two education boards could reach a compromise during their joint meeting next month.

"The college-preparatory curriculum and Project Excellence are related at the school level, and one can implement the college-preparatory curriculum and still get the outcomes specified in Project Excellence,'' he said.

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