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October 29, 1999

Council's Education Chair testifies in support of high standards

New York must resist pressure to relax its tough new academic standards, the chairman of The Business Council's Education Committee told lawmakers in a legislative hearing October 28.

"To keep giving kids a diploma based on old standards that do not reflect what it takes to be a success in this world today is not helping them," Carlos Carballada, an executive at M&T Bank and former chancellor of the state Board of Regents told a legislative hearing on new high-school standards.

He noted that New York is the first to embrace education reform through higher standards, and that the rest of the nation will watch how New York copes with calls to retrench.

Some will criticize the standards, saying it's unfair that thousands of high-school seniors may not get diplomas on time.

"But here is what's really unfair," he said. "It's sending them into the real world with a false certification that their education has been a success."

New York's tradition of giving kids diplomas that reflect attendance more than academic success has for many years burdened colleges and employers with remedial education obligations while hurting these students' job and career prospects, he said.

Retreating from standards, and tests that measure achievement against them, "would be to abandon the best hope of getting the public school system to prepare kids for the real world of the 21st Century," he said.The text of the testimony follows:

"New York State, which is ahead of the curve in the nation's push for education reform, is now facing a very tough test. We are beginning to see what an abstract concept like 'higher standards' means in practice. And the rest of the nation is watching what we will do. Will we rise to the challenge or give up?

"You are hearing a great many calls to scale back. Well-meaning as they are, resist them. To keep giving kids a diploma based on old standards that do not reflect what it takes to be a success in this world today is not helping them. The facts are clear. The old minimum competency high- school diploma simply does not represent what young people really need to know and be able to do to be successful in the next phase of their lives.

"New York is the first state to put so much on the line. Clearly other states are adding new tests, reporting results by school, and perhaps 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.

"We now know that thousands of high-school seniors in New York State may not get the high-school diplomas they have been expecting - at the time they expected to get them (though they still have this year to work at it).

"You have been hearing that The Board of Regents and their higher standards are being implemented too fast or that tests don't measure everything a student really knows and are unfair.

"But here is what's really unfair. It's sending them out into the real world with a false certification that their education has been a success.

"Out of a misguided conception that it is somehow a kindly thing to do, we have been giving many kids - perhaps one-quarter or more of each year's statewide graduating class - a high-school diploma without giving them a high-school education.

"They 'graduate,' and then the public schools are done with them. But these kids don't have even the minimal literacy, math and other skills needed to make their way in the world. If they go to college or into the military, they are immediately shunted into remedial classes to provide the skills they were supposed to have been taught in high school. If they enter the workforce, they may face a lifetime on the bottom rung of the ladder - if they can get a job at all.

"Students who do not initially meet the Regents' new graduation requirements will not be turned out into the streets. Under law they are entitled to a high-school education until they graduate or reach age 21. In contrast, they are not entitled to remedial education in the public schools if they have been given a diploma C even a relatively meaningless one. Ironically, we leave it to our higher education system to provide and pay for remediation.

"Today, it is the students who are being graduated without being educated who are getting turned out into the streets without a future. This is the true tragedy of our education system, and the Board of Regents' plan is intended to put a stop to it.

"To adults with jobs in the education field, delaying the implementation of the standards until they are comfortable with them might seem a reasonable thing to do. But further delay looks different from the perspective of employers and, I would submit, students.

"In 1983 'A Nation at Risk' was published, documenting the failures of the education system and the need for higher graduation requirements. Yet it will not be until 2001 - 18 years later - that employers can be confident that a newly minted New York State high-school graduate is reasonably competent in algebra and geometry. Since 1983, 15 classes have graduated from high school without standards being raised. And since 1983, three entire cohorts of students have gone through their entire public school careers, from kindergarten through 12th grade. For them, higher standards and education Areform@ have already come too late. For how many more kids can we allow that to be the case?

"The Board of Regents displayed great courage in finally deciding it was time to adopt real standards and set real deadlines.

"To retreat from these standards now, and the Regents tests which measure whether or not they have been achieved, 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 current English Regents test scores demonstrate that our schools are moving closer to the mark. We have to hang tough until they finish the job. Test results show it won't be easy. But there are data on achievement rates in some schools with high numbers of disadvantaged kids that undercut the argument that it can't be done, at least certainly not without a great deal more money.

"Many individual schools have stopped complaining and started improving by seeking out research-based practices that are working in similar schools. Some of the sharpest improvement rates are in poor districts and high-minority schools. Enough lower-spending schools are improving faster than high-cost ones to prove it can be done.

"With the right improvements in the system, upgrading the curriculum and improving teaching, providing more time and help, our kids will succeed. And ultimately it is their success - and not the school system's comfort level - that we must be concerned about. The world into which we are sending our high-school graduates is a competitive high-skills place. Well-paying low-skill jobs are rapidly disappearing. U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics indicate that one in three new jobs created between now and 2001 will require a B.A. or more and that number is only going to go up.

"We have known since 1990 that passing the Regents competency tests and getting a local diploma is not adequate for a graduate to get an entry-level job with the ability to advance. We knew that for a fact because The Business Council participated in an extensive and intensive study of the knowledge and skills required to be able to do most entry level jobs well. And the skill and knowledge requirements have only gotten more sophisticated in the intervening 10 years. Just at the end of August 1999 we surveyed our members with regard to the higher standards and found the following:

"To achieve an American standard of living in the 21st Century job market, it is clear that our young people simply must have high skills.

"We must reject the notion that students are 'owed' a high school diploma for simply showing up and being good kids. And we must never sell ourselves short on what they are capable of achieving.

"A diploma is not a certificate of attendance. It is - or should be - a symbol that a student is ready for a demanding and difficult world. If he's not ready, we have to fix that. We have to make sure instruction is high quality and aligned with the standards and tests. If that is in place and if some kids are still having difficulty we have to provide extra time and help.

"But if we won't allow ourselves to fail a single kid, we will fail all of them.

"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."