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New high school diploma standards unrealistic

Who will hold accountable the Oregon state Board of Education as it imposes untested mandates, clueless as to the consequences for our schoolchildren?

Beginning with those entering ninth grade in the fall, students will have to earn an increased number of credits to graduate and will have to show mastery of specific "essential skills", according to your recent front page story "Students face new rules for diploma." (Feb. 26) While some districts like Ashland and Medford already require 24 credits or more, others in Jackson County currently do not. If the rigor of those course credits must be raised, how will schools find the necessary resources? To show students' proficiency in "essential skills", the state Board of Education is considering standardized tests or portfolios of work, and remains undecided. What criteria will be used to measure mastery?

Local school district leaders are voicing concern about the impact these tougher state standards may have. "The new graduation requirements may slow down the increases in the graduation rate we're looking for," said Medford schools Supreintendent Phil Long. "It raises the bar as far as the rigors of the requirements for a diploma." One need only look to Texas, where the No Child Left Behind Act was created under then Governor George W. Bush, to see how tougher standards can lead to rising dropout rates.

"NCLB Seen Fueling Texas Dropout Rates" is the headline of a story in the Feb. 20, 2008, issue of Education Week. It reports the state's dropout rate has grown steadily since 2001 "because of the use of accountability testing as required by the No Child Left Behind Act." Researchers at Rice University's Center for Education, in Houston, and the University of Texas at Austin studied 271,000 students over seven years, interviewing students, teachers and administrators.

The report concluded that Texas tests mandated under the NCLB law "have caused low-achieving students to drop out in higher numbers than before, a problem the state's tally of dropout rates fails to portray accurately." As Oregon educrats consider more standardized testing, local school leaders have good reason to worry.

Your story reports that, prior to graduating, Oregon students must show "'proficiency' in reading, writing, math, public speaking, technology, thinking, civic engagement, global literacy and career skills." While the state Board of Education conducted hundreds of community meetings and evaluated thousands of surveys to establish its "essential skills," the list seems to go beyond reasonable goals while ignoring a crucial one. Designing curriculum by community vote may not be the best method.

The front page of Education Week's Feb 20 issue carries a story headed, "Flagging Economy Propels Financial Education," and suggests Oregon's state education leaders may have missed the mark. "Financial education experts have been advocating teaching students economics and personal-finance skills for decades ... (now) .. concerns about the foundering economy are helping to highlight the need to improve students' understanding of money matters."

Is it reasonable for Oregon to require students to master Algebra 2 and public speaking, yet not understand the effect of paying off a $1,000 credit card debt using the minimum payment per month? I remember how stunned my students were when I showed them the effect of having a $5,000 certificate of deposit earning 5 percent interest for five years. Do students today know how to make a budget based on after-tax paychecks, the true cost of owning a car or a home, or what an adjustible-rate mortgage means? Do they know how easily their cell phone bill can spin out of control, or the advantage of "bundling" their Internet access with their cable television? The Oregon school board wants students to master "technology"; but ever-expanding technology can easily ruin the financial stability of students.

"We need to get basic, practical economics and personal financial decision-making skills into the heads and hands of our kids while they are in school, before they have to learn these things in the school of hard knocks," said Robert Duvall, president of the National Council on Economic Education. I couldn't agree more.

If the Oregon state Board of Education imposes unrealistic mandates as school districts struggle with limited time and resources, how will our children master the life skills they desperately need?

Betty R. Kazmin of Medford taught algebra for 20 years in Los Angeles public and private secondary schools, and is a former member of the Board of Education in Willard, Ohio.