"Even in hard economic times, this is a warranted investment in accountability and delivering results and giving kids tools for the future," Joe Torsella, chairman of the State Board of Education, said after the vote.
Education experts say test scores showed about 57,000 Pennsylvania students graduated last year without adequate math, writing or reading skills. Fewer than half the state's high school students enroll in college the next year.
The new system will not require students to pass any given test in order to graduate, but the Keystone Exams, phased in over time, will count as a third of participating students' final grades in a range of core subjects.
By 2014-15, most students who graduate will have demonstrated proficiency in English composition, literature, Algebra I and biology. Two years later that list will include English composition and literature and a selection from among Algebra I, Algebra II, geometry, biology, chemistry, American history, world history and civics and government.
The state has a $176 million contract with Data Recognition Corp. that runs through 2015 and covers the exams, a model curriculum and diagnostic tools. Pennsylvania spends more than $21 billion annually to educate 1.8 million public school students.
The regulators' vote followed more than five hours of public comment, including criticism from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which said the tests should not count for a full third of students' grades and that students who do not reach the "basic" level on the tests should not get a zero, as called for.
Elliott Seif, an education consultant and former Temple University professor, called the regulations unduly complicated and bureaucratic, and said there was no evidence they will be effective.
"What guarantee do we have that the state is going to come up with quality exams?" Seif said. "Maybe they'll come up with exams for the lowest common denominator."
The commission voted with little final comment. The lone "no" vote was cast by Silvan B. Lutkewitte III, who declined comment afterward.
The regulations must undergo a technical review by the attorney general's office, and Torsella said he expects they will be published - and become law - in about two months.
If the federal government gives its approval, the Keystone Exams will replace the 11th grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests that students currently take.
School districts can develop their own assessments as long as they meet certain standards, and they can also allow students to substitute advanced-placement or International Baccalaureate exams if the content is similar to the Keystones.