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N.J., N.Y. Advance Efforts To Adopt Academic Standards

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Despite declarations the momentum behind the national movement for academic standards had flagged, two of the nation's biggest states forged ahead last week and released standards designed to elevate student achievement.

The New York state board of regents gave conditional approval to standards for English-language arts, mathematics, science, and technology. And in New Jersey, Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz unveiled standards outlining what students should know and be able to do in the arts, health and physical education, languages, literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies.

New York has long had curriculum standards, but they have been geared primarily toward students who aimed for a so-called regents' diploma and had to pass the more rigorous regents' exams to earn one. The proposed guidelines target all of the state's 2.7 million public school students.

If all goes according to the plan that Commissioner Richard P. Mills has proposed, all students in New York will have to take regents' exams, and tougher ones at that, to graduate from high school. The higher criteria would be phased in, beginning with English-language arts and the fall's crop of freshmen.

"We have never before articulated exactly what learning in these areas ought to look like all along the way, other than by tests," said Roseanne DeFabio, the coordinator of curriculum and instruction for New York state. "Now, we describe what students ought to know and do as they move toward those standards."

With the release of a proposed core curriculum, New Jersey also is entering new territory.

"Never before have we identified what we believe all New Jersey students should know and be able to do upon completion of grades 4, 8, and 12," Mr. Klagholz said.

Above and Beyond

New York and New Jersey are but two states that have been working to craft standards and related assessments that education officials hope will drive school districts to upgrade curricula and instruction.

Yet not so long ago, a number of prominent education analysts and policymakers asserted that the various national voluntary standards efforts had proved wasteful, especially after the release of the ill-fated U.S. and world history standards. (See related story, page 16.)

Moreover, lack of political support at the federal level has all but killed a national board that would have reviewed and certified national and state standards.

But New York officials intend to invite experts from across the nation to review the standards they have prepared before they are submitted to the board of regents for final approval in July.

The New York frameworks that were approved last week also borrow from the national math and science standards as well as the work of the private, nonprofit New Standards project, a collaboration of the Rochester, N.Y.-based National Center on Education and the Economy and the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

But the New York guidelines, which include content and performance standards and samples of students' work, also go beyond those documents. For example, as early as elementary school, students would be expected to understand the concept of engineering design and to demonstrate that understanding. To display their grasp, the guidelines say, students might be asked to read a story called "Humpty's Big Day," wherein the readers visit the place where nursery-rhyme character Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall. The students then would be asked "to design and model a way to get to the top of the wall and down again safely."

Making Connections

At the commencement level, high school students would be expected to master the concept of uncertainty in mathematics--the idea that math "involves more than exactness when dealing with everyday situations."

For math, science, and technology, there are seven overarching standards. While each of the disciplines has its own set of standards, there are also overarching standards that would require students to make connections between and among subjects. The first such standard asks students to "use mathematical analysis, scientific inquiry, and engineering design, as appropriate, to pose questions, seek answers, and develop solutions."

There are four fundamental English-language-arts standards: "Students will read, write, listen, and speak for information and understanding; for literary response and expression; for critical analysis and evaluation; and for social interaction."

Within those broad categories, the standards make clear that New York students would not only be expected to learn to interpret, analyze, synthesize, and demonstrate other higher-order thinking skills, but also would be required to do so in standard English.

The language-arts standards also take an integrated approach to learning. For example, in the commencement standard on listening and reading to analyze and evaluate, students might demonstrate their proficiency by comparing majority and dissenting opinions in a U.S. Supreme Court case, comparing political candidates' stands on several issues, or comparing current and past explanations about a scientific issue such as the greenhouse effect.

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