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State proposes splitting global history course

Students prepare to take a Regents exam at

Students prepare to take a Regents exam at South Side Middle School in Rockville Centre (June 18, 2010). Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

State school officials have proposed splitting the current two-year course in global history and geography into two one-year units, mostly on grounds that too many students fail the comprehensive final exam.

Long Island social studies educators Tuesday attacked the proposed change, citing risks of a watered-down curriculum. Critics particularly fear that the state will drop testing altogether for the first half of the program that now is taught over the course of both the ninth and 10th grades -- a possibility acknowledged by Albany.

"What our group felt is that they're trying to create a one-year exam under the guise of a two-year course," said Gloria Sesso, co-president of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies. "In other words, they're trying to make it easier."

The council represents 1,100 social studies teachers and administrators.

State authorities contend many teenagers simply cannot remember, for example, all that they learned early in the ninth grade about ancient Mesopotamia for a Regents exam that is given 20 months later. Many educators agree.

"Once ninth grade is over, you erase everything during the summer and begin again," said Steven Goldberg, head of a state advisory council on social studies and a department chairman at New Rochelle High School in Westchester County.

New York State is rare in offering a two-year combined course in world history and geography, which has been taught universally here since the late 1990s. Some educators jokingly call the current bulky curriculum "Plato to NATO."

In most high schools, ninth-grade lessons start with the Paleolithic or Stone Age, more than 2 million years ago, and end with the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, in 18th century Europe. Tenth grade usually starts with the French Revolution and ends with current international events.

The course includes a three-hour Regents exam, one of five state tests that students must pass to receive their high school diplomas.

Under the proposed change, ninth- and 10th-grade social studies would become distinct courses. State officials said actual lessons might not change that much, though the number of topics now covered in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America might be reduced in favor of more in-depth analysis.

"The design of the course just isn't working," said Ken Slentz, deputy state education commissioner for grades K-12.

Proponents of change note that failure rates on the global history exam are the highest of any state test required for graduation.

Passage rates for 2010-11, the latest available, were 83 percent on Long Island, 69 percent statewide and 57 percent in New York City. More than 250,000 students statewide took the test that year.

Under the proposed change, the new 10th-grade course would end with a Regents exam. The ninth-grade course also would end with an exam. But the Education Department cautioned this week that it would provide a uniform state exam for ninth grade only if it found extra money, not now available.

The Board of Regents, which reviewed the recommendation Monday, is tentatively scheduled to vote on the proposed change at its October meeting.

"I think the course should be split," said Roger Tilles, of Great Neck, the Regent representing the Island, who cited the problem of lessons forgotten between the ninth and 10th grades. "Students don't carry over."

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