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Support for Minnesota Standards May Be Wavering

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As Minnesota nears its target date for adopting performance-based graduation standards, lawmakers are pushing for new conditions that that could set back the program.

The House this month approved a one-year delay in enacting the graduation rule, which was slated to go into effect this year.

House members also passed a provision that would require the legislature to sign off on any changes in the new requirements before the state proceeds with implementing them.

Under existing law, the state board of education and education department have authority to enact the final standards unless the legislature votes to block the action.

The new conditions--which have not yet been endorsed by the Senate--are not expected to alter the schedule for phasing in the requirements, according to Mike Tillman, the director of standards and implementation for the education department.

Nevertheless, the developments could signify wavering support for the program, which some opponents have likened to outcomes-based education, an increasingly controversial concept nationwide.

Although state polls have shown that Minnesotans generally favor the idea of graduation standards, there appears to be confusion over what the requirements--which have gone through several permutations--will finally entail.

The uncertainty may be causing lawmakers to balk, especially during an election year, observers said.

"Some people have really been beat up by this on the campaign circuit,'' remarked Rep. Kathleen O. Vellenga, the chief author of the education bill authorizing the standards.

The graduation rule's supporters are also worried that the move by the House "could send a conflicting message to school districts that this is not a serious effort'' to put standards in place, said Sliv Carlson, the education department's director of government relations.

A Pared-Down Plan

Although the state has discussed graduation standards since the mid-1980's, its plan to require students to demonstrate proficiency in certain subjects has been in high gear for only the past few years.

The final standards, which were expected to be ready early this year, have been revised in recent months due to objections over content. Critics said there were too many requirements and that some were too vague.

Although Gov. Arne Carlson has generally supported the standards plan, he and several other state officials called for more basic benchmarks after the first proposal was unveiled.

Under the education department's pared-down plan, high school students would have to demonstrate their competency in mathematics, science, reading comprehension, writing, and other subjects to receive a diploma.

Students entering the 9th grade in 1996 are still slated to be the first class required to meet some of the new requirements, which are being assessed at about a dozen pilot sites.

High school students in the state currently graduate based on the number of required courses they pass.

Ms. Vellenga and others have urged the legislature to give state officials autonomy in enacting the graduation rule, which Senate and House leaders were expected to discuss in conference late last week.

Other lawmakers, however, said they are hesitant to move ahead with approval unless the state can produce positive results from the pilot sites.

"We're in the fifth draft of a rule that hasn't shown the legislature anything absolute,'' said Rep. Alice M. Johnson, the House Education Committee member who offered the amendment requiring final legislative approval of the plan.

"The legislature should not be writing the rule,'' Ms. Johnson added. "But if it's not something we can be reasonably sure we can support, constituents will be angry at the legislature, not the state.''

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