February 23, 2005
By GREG WINTER NYTimes
iting the paltry skills of many high school graduates, the nation's governors are calling for more rigorous standards and harder exams than states have already imposed, often with considerable difficulty.
Despite the zeal for academic standards and exit exams that has swept across states in recent years, a high school diploma does little to ensure that graduates are capable of handling the work awaiting them in college or in the workplace, the National Governors Association said in a report issued yesterday. Graduation requirements remain so universally inadequate that it is possible to earn a diploma anywhere in the nation and still lack the basic skills required by colleges and employers, the governors reported.
Indeed, more than 4 in 10 public high school students who manage to graduate are unprepared for either college courses or anything beyond an entry-level job, the governors reported, requiring billions of dollars in remedial training to endow them with the skills "they should have attained in high school."
"We must restore the value to a high school diploma," said Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat who is the chairman of the governors association. "Put simply, our standards have not kept pace with the world or the global economy."
He added, "We must push our students harder and expect more from them."
Many of the proposals the governors are considering are consistent with the tenets of President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind law: higher aspirations for student achievement and graduation rates, close monitoring of improvement and, should progress fail to come, stiff consequences.
But in other ways, the agenda is more ambitious than the federal law, a potential bone of contention considering that states have widely complained that No Child Left Behind is already far too onerous. This month, for example, the Utah House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill ordering local officials to spend as little state money as possible to comply with it.
To begin with, the governors association is proposing that states regularly test their high school students. Federal law requires such tests largely in the lower grades, though President Bush has proposed imposing greater scrutiny on high schools. Beyond that, the governors' agenda not only calls upon states to adopt and achieve clear academic standards, as federal law does, but also urges setting those standards high enough to satisfy colleges and employers - something the governors say that few states, if any, have done.
"Now that we have academic standards in place, we must ensure that they are the right standards," said Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio, a Republican who is the co-chairman of Achieve, an organization created by governors and business leaders to promote academic standards that wrote the report with the governors association.
Mr. Taft added, "Most states have not yet set the bar high enough."
Despite such lofty goals, the governors association says that states will be the ones controlling the "redesign" of their high schools, and therefore will be relatively free from the bureaucratic constraints accompanying the federal education agenda.
"It's not so much about how to get there, as long as you get there," said Dane Linn, education director of the governors association, which is asking its members to draft plans to strengthen their own state curriculums. "It's not something we want the feds to come down and tell the states how to do."
The opportunities for friction are manifold. Educators and children's advocates have mounted fierce opposition to exit exams and other test-heavy changes in education, largely out of concerns that struggling students will be more likely to drop out and that teachers will simply teach to the test at hand, hampering the development of broader skills in thinking.
When Mr. Warner looked at the exit exams of 13 other states in 2003, for example, he said that nine of those "that talked tough about high stakes had retreated and pulled back from their consequences." In that light, getting states to adopt an even stricter curriculum than they already have, and then possibly denying diplomas to those who have failed to master it may not be easy.
"The idea of consequences, and sticking to your guns about it, that is still is very controversial," Mr. Warner said.
Even so, some education advocates applauded the idea of injecting more rigor into state standards and curriculums, especially with the ultimate goal of improving graduation rates and getting more students into college or better paying jobs.