High school students in New York state could become the first in the nation to be required to declare a major and earn credits in their chosen field in order to graduate.
The proposal that students complete a series of courses in an academic subject or career field has fueled debate among state officials and educators about whether such a mandate would boost standards or place an unreasonable burden on students and schools.
It is just one piece of a plan to elevate graduation requirements that Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills presented to the state board of regents last month. If approved, all students entering 9th grade would have to decide on a career path or declare an academic major. The mandate would be phased in over several years, beginning in 1998-99.
Mr. Mills said the provision would ensure that all students are held to rigorous standards.
“This is not very different from what the best-educated students in our high schools are taking right now,” he said last week.
As part of the initiative, Mr. Mills has proposed increasing the number of course credits required for graduation from 20.5 to as many as 24. Most students heading for college are already taking enough academic courses to satisfy the requirement. “It’s possible to have 28 credits, and that’s what many of our best students are taking,” he said. “If you talk to some students who are in their senior year, the actual substance [of their course load] is pretty thin. For others, it’s packed with meaty classes.”
The plan is the latest addition to Mr. Mills’ efforts to raise graduation requirements. Beginning with the class of 2000, all students will be required to pass state regents’ exams in five core subjects.
Mr. Mills said the latest plans for graduation requirements grew out of public comments at dozens of local and regional forums on graduation requirements held this year in which many state residents said that students need to take more courses in order to meet higher academic standards.
“A school should be able to graduate all students knowing the basics cold, and they should also be able to guarantee that students know something in depth,” he said.
Details of the plan will not be available until they are presented to the regents next month. But educators are beginning to speculate about how the new mandate would affect schools and students.
In New York City, where a number of theme schools already provide a wide array of career and academic offerings, students would have many options. Students who work or take additional English courses to compensate for a language deficiency, however, might take even longer to earn their diplomas, said Chiara Coletti, a district spokeswoman.
But the requirement could inspire some students to be more committed to school. “There are a lot of young people who flounder around in school and have trouble finding the motivation for being there,” Ms. Coletti said. " Sometimes a major motivates them to stay there.”
Some officials are concerned that all the state’s students would not have equal opportunities to take such courses. J. Edward Meyer, a state regent for the last 20 years, said he would oppose the plan as it is now. “There would be tremendous disparity in terms of what some districts could offer compared with other districts,” he said.
For smaller districts, providing students with enough choices could prove challenging, some educators around the state say.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea,” said Peter G. Bowers, the superintendent of the 1,200-student Galway district near Saratoga Springs. " But it’s always been a problem for us that we don’t have the depth of courses that the larger districts have.”
For others, the idea that students as young as 13 must decide a specific path is unrealistic.
“Raising standards is a great idea,” said Leon J. Reed, the superintendent of the Schuylerville schools north of Albany. “But they are just pegging kids much too early.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 1997 edition of Education Week