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N.Y. Students Must Master 2nd Language

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In a startling move that many educators say was ill-conceived and unrealistic, New York state has added proficiency in a second language to the roster of requirements for a basic high school diploma.

The mandate, if it stands, would make New York's graduation requirements among the most stringent in the nation, especially when it comes to a second language.

Hastily adopted by the state board of regents this month against the advice of Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills, the new regulation would extend to nearly all students the second-language requirements that traditionally have applied only to candidates for the state's college-preparatory diploma. Mr. Mills, who advocated a go-slow approach to foreign languages as the state ratchets up requirements in other core subjects, said last week that he expects the regents to reconsider at least some aspects of their new policy next month.

Richard P. Mills

The policy as adopted would require students to take the equivalent of three years of a foreign language and pass a state exam to earn a regular diploma. The only exceptions would be certain special education students and those who pursue a specified sequence of five courses in occupational education or the arts.

"New York state is right in the midst of the global economy," said regent J. Edward Meyer, the foremost proponent of the new mandate. "Our students really need exposure to a foreign language and to the culture that goes along with that language."

J. Edward Meyer

Some states have made second-language proficiency a graduation requirement as part of their statewide learning standards, although most are years away from implementation. But none appears to have mandated directly so many years of study, along with a high-stakes exam, for a regular diploma.

The new requirement drew fire from critics on questions of both substance and process.

Although Mr. Meyer and other regents had previously voiced support for more-rigorous foreign-language requirements for all students, the proposal was not aired in public hearings before the board took it up the morning of its vote Nov. 14. That dearth of public discussion contrasted with the extensive debate surrounding much of the rest of the package of revised graduation requirements that the regents approved that day. ("Mills Outlines Proposal for Stricter Standards," Sept. 24, 1997.)

"I don't disagree with the notion that foreign language is a very important part of education," said Robert M. Johnson, a regent from Long Island who opposed the foreign-language amendment, which passed on a 10-4 vote. "But I feel this was an ill-conceived 11th-hour amendment to what otherwise was a strong plan that would be a significant reach for a significant number of students."

On a Whim?

Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, lambasted the regents last week as acting "on a whim." He argued that complying with the foreign-language dictate would divert resources from the already daunting task of helping students meet higher standards in English, mathematics, science, and history.

"They may have taken a situation that was up against the wall and pushed it over the wall," he said.

Linda Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman for New York State United Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, expressed similar concerns.

"We went from great expectations to unrealistic expectations," she said. "It's really a stretch, and it may have the unintended consequences of pushing students into occupational education just to duck the foreign-language requirements."

In New York City, which enrolls more than one-third of the state's public school students, the schools chief and mayor were divided over the new policy. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani last week praised it as part of a much-needed push for higher standards. But Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew said it would force the city to scramble for foreign-language teachers at a time when it is already hard pressed to staff its classrooms. He said it would also hurt vocational education students and those in low-performing schools that need intensive remediation in basic skills.

Mr. Meyer, however, denied that his amendment was the bombshell that many observers consider it. The real surprise, he argued, was that Mr. Mills proposed allowing students to graduate without meeting the second-language requirements that have been part of the state's college-prep curriculum since 1984.

The commissioner wanted students to take one year of a foreign language in high school or pass a proficiency test based on skills acquired in earlier grades. New York already requires one year of a foreign language before high school. Mr. Mills favored reserving the higher standard for students seeking an advanced diploma.

Testing in Tongues

This month's action was the latest twist to a push that began in 1996 when the regents adopted new statewide learning standards and decided to replace basic-competency tests with college-preparatory-style exams for all students. As a result, students graduating in 2004 will have to pass the kind of tests in English, math, science, U.S. history, and global studies traditionally taken only by candidates for a so-called regents' diploma.

With the decision to scrap the competency tests, questions arose about whether to preserve the state's multi-tiered diploma system. About 40 percent of New York graduates typically earn regents' diplomas, while most of the rest earn what are called local diplomas by passing the less demanding competency tests.

At this month's meeting, the regents accepted Mr. Mills' recommendation to abolish the local diploma and award a regents' diploma to all students who meet the new requirements. But they also agreed to create a new advanced regents' diploma for students who complete a more extensive series of courses and tests. Currently, students must take at least eight regents' exams to earn a regents' diploma, a minimum that will now apply to the advanced designation.

Other changes they approved will raise the number of courses needed to graduate and add a year more of both science and math to the current two-year course requirements in each subject.

The regents also endorsed a much-debated proposal by Mr. Mills to allow immigrants who arrived in this country in the 9th grade or later to take regents' exams in their native languages. Mr. Mills proposed translating the exams into five languages commonly spoken among immigrant students in New York: Spanish, Haitian-Creole, Russian, Chinese, and Korean. Those students will still need to pass the regents' exam in English to graduate.

Despite his strong support for foreign-language instruction, Mr. Meyer was the only regent to oppose translating the exams.

"In this state, students progress in college and their jobs through their ability to read, write, and speak the English language," he said.

'Adjustment' Predicted

Most of the newly adopted course requirements will first affect students entering 9th grade in 2001.

But Mr. Mills said the regents did not specify when the language mandate would kick in, an issue he hopes will be addressed next month. At that time, he said, he also expects "some adjustment" to the policy.

"I know the regents care about foreign languages, but I also know that they care deeply about making this reform work," he said, referring to the broader campaign to raise standards statewide.

State foreign-language mandates have stirred controversy in other states, including in neighboring New Jersey. After heated debate, the New Jersey school board agreed in 1996 to set statewide standards and test students' foreign-language skills in grades 4, 8, and 11, starting in 2001-02.

Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Oregon are among the states that have included foreign-language proficiency as part of their state standards.

But none of those states has worked out the details of how those skills will be assessed.

A handful of other states require either three years of a single second language or two years of two foreign languages, but only as part of a curriculum leading to a special, more advanced diploma. Those include Indiana, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

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