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Mandatory Regents competence will raise level of state education

Linda S. Sanford, IBM
Linda S. Sanford
IBM New York State

Recently, 1,000 students and parents demonstrated at the State Capitol against Commissioner Richard Mills and the Board of Regents, who have mandated that, beginning with the graduating class of 2003, all students must pass the Regents exams to graduate from high school.

The decision by Commissioner Mills and the Board of Regents is a courageous one — one that has the power to raise the quality of education for all New York students. We've made too much progress in the last decade to lose it all at this pivotal stage.

Not too long ago, few states had academic standards for students and hardly any had quality testing programs. At the time IBM hosted the 1996 National Education Summit, only 14 states had standards and just a handful had begun to implement quality assessments. When education and business leaders and governors convened again at IBM for the 1999 National Education Summit, fully 49 states had standards in place. Dozens, including New York State, had begun to develop the accompanying assessment and accountability programs, with good examples of success. These states understood the critical concept that standards without tests to measure progress would be like leaving the doctor's office without either a diagnosis or prescription.

It's true that bad tests should be scrapped. But high-quality tests like Regents exams in the core subjects of English, mathematics, US history and government, science, global history and geography, are a legitimate instrument for measuring students' actual learning. The Regents exam asks students to solve complex math problems, explain how they arrived at solutions, critically examine literary techniques and articulate their thinking in written essays. How can critics complain about asking all students to take or pass these tests?

In addition, I believe that the Regents exams will actually lead to better teaching. They will compel teachers to help students learn and apply their knowledge and ultimately determine whether students have met academic standards. Tests pinpoint where students need additional help and will signal where elected officials and educators should direct resources and energies. And we're on the right track. On the tougher New York test in English language arts for 11th graders, 92 percent passed. Our kids can perform. We just have to give them the chance.

The rest of the developed world is years ahead of us on this issue, and the performance of their students proves it. The Third International Math Science Survey revealed the challenge before us. Kids throughout the world — from Canada to Australia to Japan to Germany — did better than ours. They're our competition, and we want to be sure that the children educated here are qualified for the jobs here. Over the years, New York State has been a tremendous source of talent for IBM and other companies, and we want to see that legacy continue. IBM's recent announcement that we are building a new microelectronics plant in New York, investing millions and preparing to hire additional employees is in no small measure connected to the state's efforts to improve education.

Despite what you hear from some of New York's anti-testing critics, support for higher standards and tests in the US is strong, widespread, and anchored where it counts — with the overwhelming majority of parents and the taxpaying public.

In January, Education Week released a national survey of teachers probing their views of standards, testing and accountability. The report found that 87 percent of teachers surveyed agree that raising standards is "very much" or "somewhat" a "move in the right direction," and 74 percent say the level of standards in their states is "about right." The last Quinnipiac College Poll showed that 86 percent of New Yorkers, and an equal percentage of parents, felt that an essential step to improving schools is requiring students to pass tests before advancing to the next grade.

We need the Regents to tell us where our schools need improvement. From there, it's up to education leaders, with community and private sector support, to find the right solutions.

There are always going to be special interests and critics who fundamentally question whether schools and students should be held to any standards at all. They get a sympathetic hearing because, many times, they sound like advocates for kids. Don't be misled. The true advocates find ways to elevate student achievement, not hold fast to the status quo that has let kids down for years.

That said, it would be a big mistake to support universal Regents exams on the naive expectation that children will meet higher standards overnight. Getting from here to there will involve some short-term pain and a lot of hard work. But the response to challenges posed by universal Regents exams and higher standards should not be to lower them or rollback on testing, but to give our kids a shot at the kind of quality education they deserve, and which we, as concerned citizens, should demand.

Linda S. Sanford
IBM New York State Senior State Executive
Senior VP, Enterprise on Demand
Storage Systems Group
IBM Corporation

June 2001