Pa. board approves graduation tests

January 17, 2008 1:28:01 PM PST
The state Board of Education on Thursday gave initial approval to a plan that would require students to pass a series of state-sanctioned tests before they can receive high school diplomas - a topic that has driven a wedge between many educators and Gov. Ed Rendell's administration.

The plan, which the board approved 11-0 with one member abstaining, would effectively create a system of rolling exit exams for Pennsylvania's public high schools.

Starting with the class of 2014 - this year's sixth-graders - students would have to pass final examinations covering English, math, science and social studies. Schools would be required to provide remedial help for those who fail and give them opportunities to retake the tests so they can graduate.

Proponents say the new requirement would ensure that students in all 501 school districts uniformly meet the state's academic standards when they graduate, making them more likely to succeed whether they go to college or enter the work force after high school.

The state's largest teachers union and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association complain that it places too much emphasis on a single test and undermines the authority of local school boards to set educational policy.

The four people who testified before the board Thursday all spoke for organizations that oppose the plan.

"If we're so certain ... this is needed for success, we have a room of successful people here. Let's all take the test, see if we would graduate," suggested William R. Hartman Jr., director of the Pennsylvania Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals.

Board Chairman Karl R. Girton acknowledged the contention surrounding Thursday's vote by noting that both sides can make their cases as the state Independent Regulatory Review Commission scrutinizes the proposal in the months ahead. The Board of Education also is expected to take a final vote following the expected monthslong review by IRRC, according to spokesman Mike Race.

"It's important for everybody that this not become a blame game," Girton said. "This is not a problem of teachers. It's not a problem of schools. We can't go where we need to go if we spend all of our time pointing fingers."

Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak said 57,000 of last year's high-school graduates - 45 percent of the statewide total - failed to demonstrate proficiency in reading and math on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

Zahorchak said business leaders, work force investment officials, school superintendents and school board presidents he has talked with across the state have expressed strong support for the proposed testing.

"I tell you, we sing to the choir when we talk about measuring and holding the system accountable," he said.

Some board members expressed concern that limited funding might reduce remedial training available to children from poor and minority families.

"We need to make sure every single student is going to get the same kind of support," said board member Esther L. Bush.

Currently, students are required to pass either the PSSA or a locally designed test that measures how well they meet state standards. But state approval for the local tests is not required, and critics say the system has fostered graduation standards that vary from district to district.

Under the pending plan, recommended by a panel that Rendell appointed to strengthen the state's graduation standards, the state would create 10 subject-specific "graduation competency assessments." Students would need to pass six to graduate.

Local exams could be substituted, but only if they are approved by companies that evaluate educational tests. The PSSA, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams also could be used as alternatives.