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Testimony of Daniel B. Walsh
President/CEO,
The Business Council of New York State, Inc.

Before the Senate and Assembly Education Committees
Regents Learning Standards and High School Graduation Requirements
October 22, 2003

Thank you for providing this opportunity to testify about the Regents Exams and their role in whether or not a student gets a high school diploma.

Standards, assessment (in the form of objective tests) and accountability are the three legs of the platform from which school improvement takes place. Weaken one and you weaken them all.

We are here in this place in New York State, and in this country, because former reform efforts — efforts without accountability and objective measures — simply have not worked. As you know, we were part of the public outcry of the late 1980's and 1990's about high school graduates lacking the knowledge and skills to succeed either in the job market or higher education. We asked for these standards and we support them and the measures that tell us whether or not students, schools and the education system has reached them.

We know that jobs, but more than jobs - career advancement and the attainment of the American Dream - demand much more than an 8th grade education, let alone a high school education. It demands that all our young people have the reading, math, science, technology and communication skills they need to continue their learning beyond high school whether that be on the job or in college.

Virtually to a person everyone agrees with the need for high standards. But now that they are being objectively measured — now that knowing whether or not students have attained these standards is quite undisputable — we hear calls to go back to the old system that granted high school diplomas to students without giving them a decent education.

While it's hard to get accurate statistics on how much remediation takes place in higher education, we know, without a doubt, that community colleges in particular have to do much of the work of high schools before their students can go on to college level work and get college level credit.

We could, in fact, go back to the old system of allowing local assessments and grades to determine who gets a high school diploma, if the public school system were to guarantee the knowledge and skills of its graduates. To us such a guarantee would mean that remediation costs would be borne by the school district that gave the student the diploma.

We know it is a difficult job to teach every child to a higher level, especially when in the past it was not considered necessary to do so. But it's a change some educators do embrace. We've met them through our Pathfinder Award program that recognizes 24 of the most improved elementary schools in New York State.

The educators in these schools have done what many have said is impossible. They have gotten many more students to levels 3 and 4 on the 4th grade math and ELA tests than ever before. They tell us that without the fourth grade tests they wouldn't have made the upgrades in curriculum and instruction that enabled their students to be successful.

I hear it said that the tests are now the only standards for graduation. This is simply not true. Students have to take their courses — twenty-two credits worth. Every grade a teacher gives counts. But if we look at all the kids who have been given passing grades in school but then need remediation in community college, we know that grades are not enough. Teachers are human. The grades they sometimes give might reflect more of a student's effort than their knowledge and skill. While effort is important, the bottom line is knowledge and skill.

The dropout rate is a huge problem, but it's not a new problem. So far there are no studies that indicate conclusively to us that, if there even are real increases in the dropout rate (questionable at best) it has any relationship to Regents tests. Even if we were able to decrease the dropout rate by doing away with all or some of the Regents exams, it wouldn't help students as they venture out into the world after high school - when they find out they don't know what they need to move forward in higher education or in a job. We hear about the unfairness of testing, but the real unfairness, that has been going on for years, is sending kids out into the world with a meaningless diploma.

Some educators paint a rosy idealized picture of what education ought to be. They talk about high expectations for all students, high quality teachers with lots of autonomy to meet the needs of individual children and promote a love of learning. They extol the virtues of learning to learn and critical thinking skills. They also don't believe these things can be measured in objective ways. Perhaps not, but we do know that knowledge is the base upon which critical thinking skills and love of learning are built. And it can be measured.

If we knew, and could all agree, that this environment was in place for all students, and that it did in fact produce knowledgeable high performing high school graduates, there would be no need for either the Regents exams or NCLB. There would be no need for remediation in higher education or basic skills training on the job.

This is however, not the reality of our current system. As much as we might all want such an environment for learning, we will never even come close to it for all children without real accountability for results. Accountability in the form of objective measures of knowledge acquisition like the Regents exams or their equivalents.

Data clearly show us that children in New York are learning more than a decade ago. We are on the right track and testing is a key component. Let's not get derailed now.