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November 12, 1999

Would you train for a marathon by strolling around the block? Lowering academic standards will make our kids to just that

By R. Carlos Carballada

Imagine an inexperienced athlete who trains for the Boston marathon by ambling around the block once a day. Ideally, some coach would insist on a more rigorous regimen to prepare for such a demanding competition.

Now suppose this athlete's coach said: Yes, you should train harder. But workouts that suddenly get tougher may give us both a jolt. You might even fail. So for now, just keep strolling. We'll plan to pick up the pace later.

No one would consider that athlete well-served by such advice. So why are some New Yorkers-those who are urging New York to delay implementation of new academic standards-essentially giving millions of New York schoolchildren the same short-sighted coaching?

New York has recognized that past generations of New York schoolchildren have been ill-served by the old academic standards that were not rigorous enough to truly educate these students. As a result, New York today is moving ahead of the curve in the nation's push for education reform.

But because the new standards will challenge both students and schools, there are already many calls to scale back. New York should resist these pleas to retrench.

The arguments for retreat are familiar. The new standards may delay diplomas for many students. Some say the higher standards are being implemented too fast. Others criticize the new Regents tests, or say the standards are unfair.

What's really unfair is sending students into the world with a false certification that their education has been a success.

Countless young adults have been sent into the world without minimal literacy, numeracy, and other skills. That left remedial training to colleges or the military. Graduates who immediately sought work faced a lifetime on the lower rungs of the ladder-if they got jobs at all.

The new standards mean students will not get a diploma they don't earn. Those who fail can stay in high school until they graduate or turn 21. (Ironically, those who received devalued diplomas are forever barred from remedial education in public schools.)

New York's employers can see both the bad results of weak standards and the promise of the new ones.

Last August, more than nine of 10 respondents to a Business Council survey agreed that weaker standards have resulted in many students getting diplomas but not educations. Nearly 85 percent agreed that the new standards will help improve students' preparation for jobs and careers.

And eight of 10 respondents agreed that only those who meet the new standards should get diplomas, and that New York should maintain standards even if more students must repeat courses and delay their graduation.

The Board of Regents displayed great courage in finally toughening standards and setting real deadlines. To retreat now from the new standards and the tests that will measure kids 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.

R. Carlos Carballada is chairman of The Business Council's Education Committee and former Chancellor of the Board of Regents. He is assistant to the chairman and a director of M&T Bank Corporation.