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STATE'S RIGID SCHOOL STANDARDS COULD TRIGGER RISE IN CHEATING

State Education Commissioner Richard Mills and the Board of Regents should be getting the message that the new standards they have established for New York State students, worthy as they are, will have to be more flexible. If not, trouble, including scandal, looms as a possibility.

The path of obstinacy will likely result in more disclosures of test cheating like those in New York City that were made public on Dec. 7. The scandal involved dozens of teachers and two principals who helped students in 32 schools cheat on standardized reading and math tests. These tests were designed to determine how well the schools were doing their jobs.

The cheating occurred from 1995 through this year -- before the much-heralded push to improve student performance by imposing more difficult standards. With the new standards, the pressure on principals and teachers has increased greatly. Their jobs are at stake if student performance does not improve and reach specified levels.

Given that, can Mills and the Regents realistically believe that the New York City scandal will not be replicated throughout the state?

Principals are to be judged in large part on student performance. The principals certainly will put more pressure on teachers to do their best to improve student test scores.

While the vast majority of teachers and principals are honest, one would have to be naive to believe that there are not those who would cheat. Some might do so to save their jobs; others might do so because they feel the standards are not fair to all.

The motivation for cheating is now greater than ever. In fact, nobody can be certain that what has been going on in the New York City schools has not been repeated elsewhere in the state.

Outside of New York State, a cheating scandal also was made public recently in Texas. Presidential aspirant Gov. George W. Bush and others were publicizing the results of recent standardized tests, claiming advances in the Texas educational system. The bubble of achievement burst when a cheating scandal in the schools was made public.

The claimed advances of achievement are now clouded at best. Mills and the Regents have to rethink their rigid commitment to the new standards. They must take steps to recognize the differences in the vast student body of the state. They must make allowances for those who will not be able to achieve the desired standards because of their home backgrounds, economic circumstances or levels of intelligence.

For example, in Buffalo there are 2,796 limited-English students who most teachers agree would have major difficulty in passing the English language Regents exam in June. David Baez, the Buffalo district's director of bilingual education, has strongly expressed his concern for these students. If they fail the exam, they will not get their diplomas.

He and other bilingual educators throughout the state have urged education officials to consider changes that would take into consideration the special problems of this segment of the student body.

The goal, Baez says, is to have the Regents "realize the harm they are going to do these kids with these higher expectations." The state has made only one minor concession, giving the limited-English students three additional hours to take the exam. Hardly much of a concession. The other suggested changes have been dismissed.

I do not disagree with Mills and the Regents that proficiency in English is vital if these students are to succeed in society. But surely the standards for youngsters who were not born and brought up in America do not have to be the same as those for American-born students.

I dismiss the ridiculous assurances of educators who say students who have problems passing the Regents exams in all the required disciplines can just stay in school until age 21 while continuing to strive to pass the tests. The chances are small that a good percentage of the youngsters would be in an economic position to stay in high school that long.

There are indications that some educators and Regents are now having second thoughts about total inflexibility in the new standards. Hopefully, their thoughts will prevail. Some modifications are in order and can be adopted without seriously compromising the philosophy that went into framing the standards.

MURRAY B. LIGHT is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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