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N.Y. Regents Approve Standards--And Penalties

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The New York State board of regents has put in place several more key pieces of its comprehensive plan to upgrade the schooling of the state's 2.7 million public school students.

The governing body last month gave final approval to seven sets of academic standards, as well as regulations attaching severe penalties to schools that fail to demonstrate that most of their students are achieving at high levels.

"Just as we are asking students to meet standards, we are also asking schools to meet standards," Carl T. Hayden, the board's chancellor, said.

Passage of the standards and new school regulations represents a major part of the regents' reform initiative, the New Compact for Learning. Though in the works since 1991, it is only in the past year, under new Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills, that many of the initiative's features--and extensions of it--have been made final.

In the spring, for example, the regents announced that they would eliminate the state's basic-competency tests and require all students to take the more rigorous regents' exams. The regents' exams are being revised to correspond with the standards in the four core subject areas--math, science, English-language arts, and social studies. (See "N.Y. Backs Tougher Exams for All Students," May 1, 1996.)

Bold and Timid?

In addition to those subjects, the regents approved standards for health, physical education, and home economics; foreign languages; the arts; career development and occupational studies; and technology, which is included in the math and science document.

Educators and other observers who have reviewed the standards generally like what they have seen.

"They hit on some important issues in education that a lot of other states have not taken on," said Richard D. Laine, an associate superintendent for the Illinois board of education. "Very few have touched home economics. It's been a very sensitive issue because of the affective domain."

Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City, said she preferred the previous versions because they had elaborated more on benchmarks, performance indicators, and discussions about learning experiences that would help students meet the goals. Even though the pared-down versions are less informative, she said, the standards are intellectually ambitious.

"We believe the New York state standards are moving in the right direction," said Charles J. Santelli, the director of policy and program development for the New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers' union. But, he said, teachers want and need more direction, which he hopes will be in the resource guides the state education department is writing to supplement the standards.

His comments were in line with a report the American Federation of Teachers is scheduled to release this week that assesses states' standards-setting efforts in the core subject areas. (See related story in This Week's News.) Under the AFT's criteria, the only New York standards deemed acceptable are those in science. The AFT considers the state's English and math standards to be borderline and its social studies standards unacceptable.

Many reviewers would not argue with the union's evaluation of the social studies standards, which have been mired in controversy since 1987. Regardless of political persuasion, those who have reviewed the final document say the social studies standards are so lacking in substance that they are virtually useless.

Clock Ticks for Schools

State officials will have their work cut out for them in ensuring that the schools meet their standards. Under the new regulations, 90 percent of a school's students will have to pass a state competency test within three years. If the school misses the target, it will be placed on a list for corrective action. If the school shows no substantial improvement, the state has the option of reconstituting or closing the school. The clock starts ticking next month.

Observers estimate that as many as 1,000 schools could be placed on the list for corrective action.

"Now comes the hard part," said William J. Pape, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association. The commissioner "has to draw up the list of those schools and has to deal with all of those schools that are going to be frightened."

And from the school districts' point of view, Mr. Pape said, "what we need to do is figure out how to ensure our children are going to be meeting these standards."

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