New York State, which is ahead of the curve in the nation's push for education reform, is going to face a very tough test next year when reality sets in and we see what an abstract concept like "higher standards" means in practice.

As new test results that were released this week have now revealed, the reality is likely to be a shock:

Our new standards could well mean that thousands — probably tens of thousands — of next year's high-school seniors in New York State won't get the on-time high-school diplomas they have been expecting.

When that happens, what will follow? Either New York will beat a hasty retreat from higher standards. Or the failure rate will at last awaken the public at large, and the political community, to the do-or-die necessity of shaping up our public school system.

To retreat from these standards would be to abandon the best hope of getting the public school system to prepare kids for the real world of the 21st Century. And there's no reason to retreat. The new test scores demonstrate that our schools are moving closer to the mark. We have to hang tough until they finish the job.

But those same test results show that it won't be easy. Unless there is significant improvement from the 1998 test data, about one-third of next year's high-school seniors in New York City — and about 23 percent of seniors in schools outside the city — will fail to meet the graduation requirement. That adds up to about 37,000 kids statewide whose graduations next June are in jeopardy.

New York is the first state to put so much on the line. Other states are adding new tests, reporting results by school, maybe penalizing a few failing schools. But only in New York is the education reform movement really facing the bottom line, by saying, in effect: No, we will not give you a high-school diploma until we've given you a high-school education.

The requirements are being phased in gradually. Those graduating in 2000 will have to get a passing grade of at least 55 on the Regents test in English. Requirements in math, social studies and science will be added for later classes.

Yes, these requirements are tough. But the world into which we are sending our high-school graduates is even tougher. Low-skill jobs are disappearing. To achieve an American standard of living in the 21st Century job market, our young people simply must have high skills.

Still, many school superintendents around the state are in an uproar. In community forums and in meetings with state officials, they are complaining that the schools can never make the improvements needed, or that they can't improve without tremendous amounts of new money, or that the Regents tests are irrelevant or excessively demanding.

The data on test scores undercut these arguments, however. Many individual schools have stopped complaining and started improving. Some of the sharpest improvement rates are in poor districts and high-minority schools. Many lower-spending schools are improving faster than high-cost ones.

As to whether the tests are excessive or irrelevant, you can judge that for yourself. Go to the library and look up one of those prep books for the English Regents test. Read the sample test. Now think of yourself as an employer. Would you want to give oral directions — or an instruction manual — to someone who couldn't get a 55 on that test?

In reality, the school superintendents are simply worried that they will be blamed, rather than helped, when a firestorm breaks out over the number of students who fail to graduate on time. Which is understandable. These educators live in a pressure-cooker world full of conflicting demands.

One example from my own suburban school district, which has cultivated a reputation for academic rigor, sticks in my mind. Our school superintendent came under political assault a few years ago for denying graduation to a student who had repeatedly failed a minimum competency test in social studies. The test required you to know such things as why the Civil War was fought. But to a vocal minority in the community it was an outrage that this girl could not attend her graduation — after all, her relatives had come to town for the ceremony!

Let's get serious. High-school graduation is not a social event. And a diploma is not a certificate of attendance. It is — or should be — a symbol that you're ready for a demanding and difficult world. If you're not ready, we have to fix that. But if we won't allow ourselves to fail a single kid, we will fail all of them.

And if kids can't graduate at age 18, they have time for remediation. The schools, and if not them then the community colleges, know how to do that.

All of us in the public owe our support to our school officials, at both the state and local levels, as they face up to this new obligation.

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