New Education Chief Backs Exit Exam, Tighter Standards
April 17, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
Along with Gov. M. Jodi Rell's historic proposal to pour billions of dollars more into public education should come tighter standards for schools, possibly including a high school exit exam, Connecticut's new education commissioner says.
Monday was Mark K. McQuillan's first official day on the job, but the former Massachusetts educator has been a regular visitor to Connecticut since being appointed commissioner and says holding schools accountable for progress will be a top priority.
In addition to an exit exam, McQuillan also is considering ideas such as tighter monitoring of local districts' performance and a longer school day and school year for struggling schools.
His appointment came only weeks before the governor in February included a massive increase in state education funding in her proposed budget. She also called for more accountability - an opportunity, McQuillan said, to address problems such as lagging achievement among many minority and low-income children, especially in the state's big cities.
"We have a very large achievement gap. We have declining scores" on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, McQuillan said in an interview at his office Monday.
"I thought the [governor's] proposal was very, very visionary - an enormous amount of money going into public education. Her commitment to [preschool] education and prevention is at the heart of making significant changes that I applaud," he said.
"With the commitment of money that she has made, there is a very real expectation . . . that we have to demonstrate the effectiveness of having that kind of investment in our public schools. We cannot stand by and think that we're not going to be held to a higher standard."
McQuillan, 58, is a former deputy education commissioner in Massachusetts, where officials have taken an aggressive approach to holding schools accountable through testing and other measures. Starting with the Class of 2003, the state has required high school students to pass a standardized exit exam before they can receive a diploma.
In Connecticut, Gov. Rell has supported the idea of an exit exam.
"We have to really look at it carefully and arrive at a thoughtful solution - something different from what we are doing," McQuillan said.
He plans to propose some possible models that would reflect the governor's suggestion and "also listen to people in the field who are saying it's not enough to have a single exam. You have to have alternatives built into it."
Many states require high school exit exams, but many Connecticut lawmakers and educators have opposed efforts to establish such a requirement in the past.
McQuillan said the idea of an exit exam also met resistance at first in Massachusetts but won acceptance eventually among educators who came "to an understanding that this was important to making the changes needed."
Rell also has been a strong supporter of preschool education, proposing to add thousands of slots in needy school districts - a strategy that has McQuillan's backing. "Preschool is in many ways the biggest opportunity to make change quickly, the best yield for the time and money invested," he said.
In Massachusetts, McQuillan was a key figure in efforts to improve schools under the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, a 5-year-old federal law that relies heavily on testing and calls for a shake-up of schools that fail to make sufficient progress.
McQuillan said Connecticut should monitor schools that fail to progress under the federal law "and find ways to intervene and support and insist upon changes," including monitoring curriculum and school budgets.
One promising strategy, he said, is to lengthen the school day and school year in low-performing schools. "It's a battle against time. . . . You have [only] 185 days in a school year, six hours a day. It's a large hurdle to overcome."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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