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24th June
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, June, 24, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

The Board of Regents has once again delayed implementation of a key element in the fight to raise academic standards. This was the year that the passing grade for Regents exams was to be restored to 65 from the 55 that was “temporarily” put in place. This was done so that the new requirement that students pass five of the exams in order to get an academic high school diploma could be “fairly” phased in.The board has put off full implementation of this for another three years, opting instead for a gradual phase-in.

To win a New York State academic diploma, students are now required to pass five Regents examinations — five tests in as long as it takes (and New York City schools are required to allow students to attend high school up to age 21), and in as many tries as it takes. When initially adopted, the Regents, to ease in this new, but hardly onerous, requirement reduced the passing grade to just 55. And even the score of 55 does not mean that 55% of the questions were answered correctly — on the math exam, for instance, providing the right answer on just 31% of the questions earns the grade of 55.
The Regents were poised to fulfill their promise to raise the passing grade to 65 but, under pressure, instead chose the installment plan. The first class required to achieve a grade of 65 on the five tests needed to graduate will be the Class of 2012.

This does not satisfy the critics, like the New York Immigration Coalition, which charges that the new plan will “set up” immigrant children, particularly late arrivals — students who first enter the local school system in middle or high school — to “fail and drop out.”They propose using an easier test as an alternative to the English Regents. That such an action would undermine the value of the diploma for all never seems to be of concern. Nor is there any recognition of the fact that when parents opt to come to America with older children unprepared for the academic challenges they will face here, there will be outcomes for which the parents must bear some degree of responsibility.

Meanwhile, the state education commissioner, Richard Mills, promised to end a waiver previously — and in my opinion, wrongly — granted to a small number of schools that have been allowed to avoid the tests and continue to use socalled “alternative assessments” for all but the English exam. This also appears to have been deferred. A deal is in the works to continue the testing waivers granted to 28 so-called “alternative” schools that are permitted to use subjective assessment devices such as portfolios. In this case, the Regents are backing down from what appears to be a fear that the Legislature might usurp their authority and grant the waivers themselves.

The key element to ensure a return to the high academic standards that American children need to remain competitive in the world economy is the reliable ability to objectively measure student performance. Our competitors on the world economic stage do not shrink from testing; instead, they embrace it as a tool necessary to achieve academic excellence. Their students are also outperforming ours. This performance gap has been raised as an issue of national concern not just by educators, but also by no less a figure than the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan.

As painful as testing may be, there is no real alternative. Subjective assessment devices, such as portfolios, are unreliable.That’s why the federal government and the Regents have put mandated testing at the center of the drive for high standards. But when crunch time comes in Albany, the backbone to follow through seems to disappear.

A high school diploma must reflect a certain level of achievement, or else it is worthless.The way to minimize failure is to do a better job in the classroom.That is how our children will earn a diploma worth having, not by returning to the bad old days of continuing to lower the bar of academic standards.
This is the lesson that we should have learned from the experiment with open admissions in the City University that stripped a great institution of its reputation for academic excellence. The turnaround since standards were restored has been remarkable, a testament to the vision of a New Yorker who has had a consistently clear vision of schooling based on challenge rather than entitlement, Herman Badillo.

Much has been made of recent increases in test scores.While I have serious concerns about the reliability of some of these results, one thing is clear. It could not have hurt that Mr. Mills held firm in his insistence that all teachers conform to state certification requirements. Thousands of uncertified teachers, most of whom failed the liberal arts portion of the certification exam, were removed from state classrooms. What portion of any test score increase can be attributed to Mr. Mills’s steadfastness in implementing this reform?

Lowering the bar helps no one. Rather, we should learn from recent experience and not fear decisive action. We should learn from the City University, once again a destination school for top students. We should learn from the positive results of insisting that the teachers we hire are capable of passing a simple test of basic knowledge.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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