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Mills Outlines Proposal for Stricter Standards

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Get ready: Here they come.

That's the message New York Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills delivered to Empire State educators last week as he unveiled a proposal to toughen the state's requirements for graduation from high school.

"It will take immense effort and ingenuity on the part of local educators to help all students meet these standards and pass these exams," Mr. Mills wrote in the proposal submitted last week to the state board of regents. "To give any student an undemanding or watered-down education is not kindness. It's wrong."

The plan, the latest step in a push to ratchet up standards statewide, calls for increasing the overall number of credits high school students need to graduate from 20.5 to 22, 18.5 of them in core academic subjects. It would add another year of both math and science to the current two years required in each, and require students to earn at least one year's credit in a foreign language.

In announcing the plan, Mr. Mills backed off an idea he floated in July to require all high school students to declare a major in a particular field--which would have been a national first. But he stuck by another controversial proposal that would allow recent immigrants to take the state's so-called regents' exams in one of four foreign languages. ("N.Y. Plan Would Require Students To Pick a Major," Aug. 6, 1997.)

The plan follows decisions by the regents to adopt new curriculum standards and to require that all students take and pass a battery of regents' exams that have traditionally been reserved for college-bound students.

Panel Voices Concerns

The commissioner's plan got a mixed reception late last week from the regents' committee that oversees K-12 education. The regents as a whole are not expected to act on the plan until at least November.

Richard P. Mills

During two hours of discussion, committee members suggested that the commissioner revise the requirements for foreign languages, technology, and health, said Saul B. Cohen, the committee chairman and a former president of Queens College of the City University of New York. For example, the committee wants all students to have to take at least one year of a second language in high school. Mr. Mills had proposed allowing students to fulfill that requirement either by passing a proficiency exam or by passing a course.

A spokesman for Mr. Mills emphasized that the committee took no votes on the proposal last week and that discussion of the matter was just beginning.

Some committee members also objected to Mr. Mills' recommendations for modifying the state's unique multi-tiered system of diplomas. Students can now earn regents' diplomas after passing a series of courses and exams designated by the state, a distinction earned last year by fewer than 40 percent of students statewide. Most of the remaining students earn local diplomas by passing less rigorous courses and state competency exams.

What's in a Name?

Last year, the regents decided to phase out those competency tests and require all students to pass at least five regents' tests to graduate, after a phase-in period ending in 2001.

To reflect that change, Mr. Mills proposed abolishing the local diploma and giving regents' diplomas to students who meet the new minimum standards. He called for establishing a new advanced regents' diploma for those who exceed those standards. In addition, he recommended creating a "safety net" for special education students by temporarily exempting them from passing the regents' exams to graduate.

At last week's meeting, committee members called for stiffening the requirements for earning the proposed advanced diploma, Mr. Cohen said. Some also questioned using the regents'-diploma designation for students who were meeting standards less rigorous than those now required for the regents' diploma.

The committee deferred discussion of Mr. Mills' proposal to allow students to take regents' exams in Chinese, Haitian Creole, Russian, or Spanish. The idea faces stiff opposition from some regents.

Antonia Cortese, the first vice president of the New York State United Teachers, praised the thrust of Mr. Mills' plan. The union is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "There may be some fine-tuning necessary, but it's one that students should be able to complete after 12 years of schooling," she said.

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