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Tougher Tests Spur Debate on N.Y. Diploma

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As New York state education officials continue their push to enhance the value of a high school diploma, their vision of rigorous academic achievement for all is starting to collide with educational reality.

The state board of regents set the stage for this collision last year when it decided to phase out basic-competency tests and instead require all graduates to pass regents' exams, a set of tougher tests traditionally geared to students bound for college.

A year later, that step has given rise to a debate over not only the courses and exams students need to earn their diplomas, but also the nature of the diplomas themselves.

In a monthlong series of regional policy forums that concluded this week, state officials heard testimony on an assortment of nuts-and-bolts issues related to implementing the tougher requirements. The questions ranged from how schools should cope with students who are unprepared for higher-level work to how they can avoid a boom in the dropout rate.

"It's hard because we're getting from the theoretical to the intensely practical," said Richard P. Mills, the state commissioner of education. "It's down to what do we do as a teacher on Tuesday."

Beyond those details, the change has raised larger questions about drawing distinctions based on academic achievement. In particular, it has exposed an underlying tension between the credo of high standards for all students and the two-tiered diploma system that has been a tradition in New York public education since 1878.

Diploma Diplomacy Required

Under that system, graduates can earn a prestigious regents' diploma by passing a battery of state-prescribed courses and tests, and last year 41 percent of them did. The rest obtain so-called local diplomas, or, if they are in special education, diplomas signifying they have completed an individualized educational plan.

Whether to preserve, modify, or eliminate that system is a question that is dividing educators across the state. It is unlikely to be resolved until at least the fall, when the regents are due to consider changes to the graduation requirements.

As a proponent of uniformly high standards and tests, Mr. Mills has moved carefully on the diploma issue. In a recent interview, he said he had not taken a final position on just how the system should be changed, if at all.

It is clear, however, that he has not been deaf to those who want to retain a multitiered system, including representatives of the state's teachers, administrators, and disabled students. A majority of such students now earn local diplomas--as opposed to the less valued special education variety--and many advocates do not want them to lose that option.

Mr. Mills said the state intends to retain a separate diploma for special education students. Beyond that, he said he is considering various options, including creating different categories of regents' diplomas to reflect a range of achievement levels.

But however the system is changed, Mr. Mills said he is determined to prevent the regents' diploma from losing its value. "That's the gold standard," he said.

Tougher Tests on Tap

The current debate became virtually inevitable in April of last year, when the regents adopted a policy requiring all students to pass at least five of the exams now required for a regents' diploma. ("N.Y. Backs Tougher Exams for All Students," May 1, 1996.)

After a phase-in period ending in 2001, students will have to pass regents' exams in English, mathematics, science, global studies, and U.S. history in order to graduate.

Currently, successful candidates for regents' diplomas usually take about 10 of the exams, often including sequential tests in math and science, and less typically in the arts or in occupational areas such as business. For example, many students take three sequential math exams from 9th through 11th grade, and four sequential science exams.

Under the new requirements, students will not have to pass such sequential tests to qualify for a local diploma. During a transition period, moreover, students will be able to pass the tests by scoring 55 on a scale of 100, rather than the 65 required for a regents' diploma. In addition, department officials have proposed giving students six hours to complete the exams instead of three.

Those developments have fueled concern that the exams are being watered down, a perception that Mr. Mills disputes.

"We're not lowering the quality of the regents' exams," he said. Nonetheless, "we'll do whatever is reasonable to make sure everyone meets these standards."

Allowing more time is one such accommodation, the state chief said. "Does anyone know how long it took Matisse to do the painting?" he asked. "Does it really matter?"

Controversy Over Courses

Intertwined with the controversy over exams is a debate over the specific courses the state should require and how much flexibility it should allow in meeting those requirements.

The state's largest teachers' union is prodding the state board to take a more prescriptive approach than local school boards, superintendents, and principals would prefer. Those differences have emerged in recent months as the various interest groups have responded to options laid out by state officials for modifying graduation requirements.

Diane Ravitch, a senior research associate at New York University who is an expert on academic standards, said the state is on the right track in demanding more from its graduates. The trick to meeting those expectations, though, will be to prevent students from getting to high school without knowing the basics, she said.

"We should really be concentrating our efforts in the very beginning so that kids can experience real success in the early grades," she said. "That's a challenge that we've not yet met."

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