Graduation tests may change in Pa.

January 7, 2008 3:11:04 PM PST
Students would have multiple ways of proving they deserve high-school diplomas under Pennsylvania's latest graduation-test proposal, but opponents of the idea are still not embracing the idea.

Proponents have said the rules would ensure that all students entering college and the work force meet the state's academic standards. The proposal is the subject of a State Board of Education hearing in Harrisburg on Wednesday.

The regulations, which would take effect for the class of 2014, call for students to pass a battery of state-approved tests that would replace traditional final exams. Failing students would be allowed to retake the tests, but schools would have to provide remedial help for them first.

The state board originally envisioned requiring schools to administer "graduation competency assessments" in reading, math, science and social studies in addition to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests that are already mandated in all the same subjects except social studies.

After discussing its proposal with educators and other parties, the board revised the proposal to give schools some flexibility in deciding which test to use, said board chairman Karl Girton. Some school officials argued that their graduation requirements were already rigorous and feared that the new regulations would force them to water down their own standards, Girton said.

"We're trying to provide as many pathways to a meaningful diploma as we can for students," he said.

Under the new draft, students can demonstrate their proficiency in a given subject by passing the PSSA; a state graduation competency assessment; local exams approved by companies that evaluate educational tests; or Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams.

The board has tentatively scheduled a Jan. 17 vote to adopt the rules and begin the formal regulatory review process, which could take a year to complete before the regulations become final.

Some school districts have already made passing the PSSA a high-school graduation requirement. But students in other districts have the option of passing those tests or a local test that measures how well they meet state standards under current regulations.

The new graduation test is one of a dozen recommendations made by a commission formed by Gov. Ed Rendell to strengthen the state's graduation standards. Critics of local testing say it creates a patchwork of inconsistent graduation standards across the state's 501 school districts.

Teachers' unions, school boards and other groups opposed to the new state tests say the revised proposal doesn't address their objections that the plan places too much emphasis on a single test and undermines local school boards' policymaking authority.

School districts using local tests would have to pay for the outside companies to evaluate them, and they would essentially have to resemble the new state tests to be approved, said Tim Allwein, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

"This is an expensive process for school districts to go through, and most of them will not do it," Allwein said.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, advocates keeping the existing local graduation test option.

"Resources that would be involved in creating these (new) tests ... would be better spent on things we know work, things like lower class sizes and increased parental involvement," said Jerry Oleksiak, PSEA's treasurer.

The focus on testing ignores a larger, more complicated question of how to provide adequate and equitable funding to all of the state's public schools so that all children can learn, said Donald Clark, education chairman of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"When you invest in testing, you invest in nothing," Clark said.

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Draft of high school graduation requirements: ---
Martha Raffaele covers education for The Associated Press in Harrisburg.