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Substandard

from the magazine

Substandard

Summer 1997
New York
Education

The perennial question for the City University of New York—just how low have academic standards sunk?—received a depressing new answer this May. Just before commencement, CUNY's trustees learned that Hostos Community College, the city's only bilingual college, was allowing its students to graduate without passing a standard English proficiency exam. Because so many of its students had been failing the exam, Hostos had simply waived it.


With just a week to go before graduation, the trustees declared that no student would receive his diploma without first passing the exam, which they offered again on an emergency basis. As quickly as you can say "Al Sharpton," the city's Hispanic politicians were charging racism, and activists had filed a civil rights suit on behalf of CUNY's linguistically challenged students. A court may indeed be the Hostos students' best hope for graduating, since only 13 of the 104 last-minute test takers passed the exam.


More astonishing than the college's suspension of the test was the supposed "proficiency" necessary to pass it. According to CUNY's official grading criteria, a student may pass the essay exam if his grammar is "usually, although not always, correct" (an occasional "they is" or "he give" is no big deal); if he has "generally demonstrate[d] through punctuation an understanding of the boundaries of the sentence" (don't fret if a sentence or two ends in a comma); and if the student spells "common" words with a "reasonable degree of accuracey" (oops, make that "accuracy").


This bundle of excuses and loopholes is the English standard that CUNY professors shrilly denounce as racist, unduly difficult, and, as one put it, a "tactic of the neo-Puritan right wing." By coming to the defense of minorities who can't read and write, they flatter themselves that they are furthering some multicultural revolution. Unless the CUNY trustees can somehow change this destructive delusion, their welcome and long overdue campaign to raise the university's academic caliber will founder. Employers don't want to be told that CUNY graduates can usually communicate in English; they want to know that they always can.

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