State Education Commissioner Richard Mills addressed the State School Boards Association's meeting several weeks ago, and I was encouraged by his remarks. I perceived willingness on his part to possibly ease up on some of the rigid standards he has so vigorously espoused. If that occurs, it will be beneficial for thousands of students.
I've always been of two minds about the commissioner. As recently as Nov. 3, I described him as a "forceful, dedicated, focused educator who always has the best interest of students in mind." At the same time, I have consistently found fault with his rigidity on insisting the very tough standards of the Regents must be maintained at all costs.
I was gratified and somewhat surprised by what he told the School Boards meeting. It appears that the cries of anguish from school superintendents, principals, teachers and parents about the standards are bearing fruit. Let's look at what Mills said:
"Fundamental toughness is sometimes demanded of us. One of those times is fast approaching. By toughness I don't mean rigidity or a detachment from reality. I do mean a willingness to adapt when the data show we should and a willingness to stand our ground when that's the right thing to do."
The "willingness to adapt" is certainly a welcome phrase, indicating a mind set that will listen to the voices of dissent about the standards. Add to that a few additional sentences he delivered near the end of his speech:
"I've listened to the arguments (of those calling for some modification of the testing requirements now in place) with respect and will keep listening. I don't believe that we have every detail right. We have adjusted in response to experience and data, and we no doubt will do so again. Clearly, we have to think hard about the 65-pass level as the deadline draws near and we see more results."
Currently, all students must pass the five mandated Regents exams in English, global studies, American history, math and science with at least a grade of 55 to graduate. Unless changed, the passing grade will rise to 65 by 2005.
While it's heartening that Mills appears to be reviewing the mandates, the remarks I've heard from parents and teachers indicate the one change they'd prefer to see implemented is a reduction from five to four or even three Regents exams that a student must pass in order to graduate. They rightfully point out a goodly number of youngsters cannot attain proficiency in all five subjects. Some concern, too, has been raised about the projected change in the passing grade to 65.
I agree with the commissioner on the need for standards, even tough ones, but not so tough that it discourages those who cannot succeed and they end up dropping out of school. That's counterproductive for the students and consequently for society as a whole.
I do have to take issue with the commissioner when he says, "The argument that 'some can't do it' bothers me and offends many parents." He points out that in the past, students were given a choice between taking Regents or non-Regents courses and, in effect, denigrates those who took the non-Regents courses. But isn't that option, while not ideal, better than having those young people just drop out of school?
Mills says: "The most recent Regents campaign to raise standards was not imposed on the public, it was a response to the public. They demanded it. People insisted that some children were not learning enough."
I don't disagree that some parents wanted tougher education standards, and I salute the commissioner and the Regents for adopting them. But why don't they listen to the demands of many parents today for some relaxation of the standards that seemingly are too tough for their children to cope with?
The Regents, says Mills, were wise to begin this journey of seeking to improve the state's education system. I agree with that appraisal, and applaud in large part what they've done. But I continue to have concern that in some areas they've gone too far.
Mills challenges the Regents to continue the fight for better education. One can't argue with the need for that, but in doing so, let's not forget that there's a substantial number of students who may strive to keep up with the best but cannot. They should not be forgotten, and it is not fair to ask them to achieve what is beyond them.
MURRAY B. LIGHT is the former editor of The Buffalo News.