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New York Chief Outlines Plan for 'Results' System

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The commissioner of education for New York State last week outlined a proposal to create an unusual "results-oriented" system that would evaluate students and schools there on the basis of performance.

The plan, which Commissioner Thomas Sobol presented to the state's board of regents, calls on the board to set statewide goals for student performance in grades 4, 8, and 12 and seeks the creation of new forms of assessment--including the use of student portfolios--to measure progress toward those goals.

It would make high-school graduation contingent on satisfactory performance on the 12th-grade assessment, rather than on the completion of a specified number of courses.

In addition, it would establish a system of rewards and sanctions for schools that would include providing vouchers toward private-school tuition for pupils at public schools that performed poorly.

Mr. Sobol also called for a number of other measures, including parental choice within and among school districts, a longer school year, a mandate for parent and teacher involvement in school decisionmaking, and a relaxation of state regulations.

The proposals could go into effect as early as this year, state officials said. Some of the provisions would require legislative approval, but many could be implemented by the board.

Although Mr. Sobol and other educators have endorsed many of these ideas over the past few years, "no state has yet enacted a comprehensive results-oriented package of this kind," the state chief asserted.

"Such a program is not for the timid," he wrote in a memorandum to the board. "But I am convinced that such a program can be accomplished--and that without it, we can reconcile ourselves to the stagnancy of our existing situation: pockets of excellence and sinks of despair floating in a slough of despond."

Representatives of school groups in the state, most of whom learned of the proposals only last week, suggested that Mr. Sobol might face an uphill battle winning support for his entire reform package.

Charles J. Santelli, director of policy for New York State United Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, praised the proposed reforms in assessment, but warned that the issues were "clouded by the heavy political agenda" suggested by such elements as vouchers and parental choice.

"The intent is to have a reform plan for New York State," said Mr. Santelli. "This may not be it."

'More Than Fine-Tuning'

Mr. Sobol's proposal to the New York regents comes as a number of states are moving to evaluate schools and districts on the basis of student outcomes, rather than on whether they meet state regulations.

For example, the landmark school-reform package adopted this spring in Kentucky creates, among other changes, a system of rewards and sanctions for schools based on their performance and provides for new techniques to assess student performance.

New York officials said Mr. Sobol's proposal would be the most significant change to that state's education system since the adoption of the Regents Action Plan in 1984. That plan strengthened course requirements mandated for high-school graduation and mandated additional state-sponsored tests.

Mr. Sobol said the new package would build on the earlier plan, as well as on other actions in the past few years to create a "new approach for improving elementary, middle, and secondary education in the 1990's."

"These efforts have been effective, and the gains which they have made should not be lost," Mr. Sobol wrote in his memorandum to the board. "At the same time, however, we increasingly discern the need to do more than fine-tune our existing programs."

Assessment Reform

The linchpin of the plan, the commissioner said, is the assessment system, which "will drive the entire system toward the attainment of statewide goals and objectives."

Under the plan, the regents would specify the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that students should acquire in all required subjects.

"It is no longer enough, for example," Mr. Sobol wrote, "to require 'two years of mathematics' at the high-school level--the desired results of such study must be made explicit."

The state would then assess pupil progress toward such goals in all required subjects in grades 4, 8, and 12, the proposal states.

Currently, the state administers a Pupil Evaluation Program test in reading and mathematics in grades 3 and 6 and in writing in grade 5; a Program Evaluation test in social studies in grade 6; preliminary competency tests in reading and writing in grade 8 or 9; regents' competency tests in reading in grade 11 or 12 and math in grades 9 through 12; and regents' examinations in 21 high-school subjects.

Unlike the current tests, which are primarily multiple-choice, the proposed assessments would include a portfolio of a student's best work, a professional evaluation of the pupil's accomplishments, and examinations--"not limited to multiple choice, standardized tests"--in the core subjects of English, math, science, and social studies.

Teachers and administrators would be evaluated, in part, on the basis of student performance, the proposal states.

In addition, Mr. Sobol proposed that high-performing schools earn rewards, such as public recognition, relaxed regulation, and added financial support. Failing schools would face such sanctions as state reviews, tighter regulation, the imposition of a state-mandated management plan, and the removal of the local board of education.

In schools "de-registered" by the state following reviews, Mr. Sobol said, parents should be given vouchers to permit their children to attend nonpublic schools.

Grant Wiggins, director of research for Consultants on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure, a research firm based in Rochester, N.Y., noted that Mr. Sobol also proposed providing financial incentives and training for districts to attain statewide goals.

"I hope he's serious about his bold initiatives, and about supplying training," Mr. Wiggins said. "It takes that. You can't just get out of the way."

'Top-Down, Bottom-Up'

As well as calling for new statewide assessments and learning goals, Mr. Sobol proposed increasing the amount of instructional time, such as by extending the school year, and encouraging the development of an individualized educational program for each child.

In addition, he urged the state board to take steps to foster local initiatives.

To that end, he asked the regents to "remove any inhibiting rules and regulations other than those concerning pupil safety and civil rights."

The commissioner also recommended that the board require the "structured participation" of teachers and parents in local school decisionmaking and that it seek legislation permitting parents to choose schools "within and among school districts."

Such actions, Mr. Sobol wrote, would engage "in collaborative endeavor the energies of teachers, administrators, school-board members, parents, and the entire education community."

Quoting Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Union, Mr. Sobol promised that the state would provide "top-down support for bottom-up reform."

But Mr. Santelli of the state teachers' union questioned whether wholesale deregulation is needed.

"Some of the things he wants to deregulate have never been a problem," Mr. Santelli said, citing the commissioner's suggestion of teacher certification as one area for relaxing rules.

In addition, Mr. Santelli said, the union has "a major problem" with the idea of "structured participation."

Unlike shared decisionmaking, which requires collaboration between teachers' unions and administrators, he said, structured participation allows administrators to choose the teachers with whom they will work.

"That puts the union in an adversarial position," Mr. Santelli said. "It's outside the process."

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