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Mills Calls for Higher Standards for N.Y. Students, Schools

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Less than two months into his new job, New York State Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills has rolled out two high-profile initiatives that aim to raise standards for the state's 2.7 million students and its worst schools.

Mr. Mills warned 14 failing New York City schools last month that they would have to improve student performance by the end of the year or be closed. The move is the first step in his plan to put as many as 500 poor-performing schools on a state watch list as a signal to shape up or be shut down.

At a meeting of the state board of regents earlier this month, Mr. Mills also proposed raising the state's graduation standards.

New York high school students now move toward graduation on one of two tracks and receive one of two diplomas offered by the state. Mr. Mills' proposal would require virtually all students to follow the more rigorous course of instruction and take the more difficult series of graduation tests, the Regents High School Examinations, that lead to a regents' diploma.

Only 38 percent of the state's graduates earn regents' diplomas.

"The public should know that we are asking most New York students to march to a much slower drum," Mr. Mills told the regents in a report on his plan.

Targeting Status Quo

Mr. Mills, who previously was the state schools chief in Vermont, said in an interview last week that he has focused his energies on the two initiatives since taking office in September because they offer a chance to demonstrate that he will move quickly on school problems in New York.

Longer-term strategies are also needed, he said. "But you can't go to the public and say, `There are serious problems here, and I'll be talking about them by the by."'

First-blush reaction from education groups, the board of regents, and other state leaders to Mr. Mills' plans was positive.

"Commissioner Mills has taken a bold step in the right direction," Antonia Cortese, the first vice president of the New York State United Teachers, said of the proposed graduation standards.

The board must approve both changes and is expected to take them up in the next few months.

The move to shut down the 14 New York City schools, however, can go forward without the regents' approval. Rudy Crew, the new chancellor of the city schools, has backed Mr. Mills on the plan and requested corrective-action plans from the schools' leaders. (See related story, .)

The schools are part of the state education department's list of almost 100 poor-performing schools and have been warned since 1989 that they might be closed. Another 400 schools would join that list and face the threat of closure under Mr. Mills' proposal to change the factors that put a school under department scrutiny.

No school from the list has ever been closed, however.

"Each year, we'd say, `Improve or else,"' said Shelia Evans-Tranumn, an associate commissioner of education for the state. "But the `or else' never came."

If a school were closed under the plan, its local board would decide whether to assign students to another school or hire a new staff and use the same building.

Will `Tough Love' Work?

Some observers questioned whether such a shake-up could produce a turnaround in New York City schools beset by budget cuts.

"We don't have any problems with the plan," said Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, the local union. "But if you want to improve schools and raise student performance, you have to put in more money."

Money will also be key to Mr. Mills' plans to not only expand the number of students taking the regents' exams, but also to revamp them. The state education agency was hit by budget cuts last year and could be due for more next year. But by eliminating all the state's tests except the regents' exams, Mr. Mills hopes to free up the funds to introduce aspects of performance-based testing to the multiple-choice tests.

In his post in Vermont, Mr. Mills was responsible for that state's pioneering program of performance-based student assessments.

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