Pa. may require exam to graduate

Competency tests could be piloted in Pittsburgh schools

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The state Board of Education may vote in two weeks to make Pennsylvania one of a growing number of states requiring high school students to pass graduation exams before receiving diplomas.

Under the proposal, the "graduation competency assessments" would be in place by the time this year's sixth-graders reach high school. State Education Secretary Gerald L. Zahorchak outlined the plan yesterday during a meeting with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board.

Dr. Zahorchak said the program may be piloted in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, where officials already had expressed interest in using a graduation exam to determine students' eligibility for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program. He left open the possibility that Pittsburgh could implement the exam as early as next school year.

Twenty-two states have implemented graduation exams, and four others plan to implement them by 2012, according to the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

The tests are an outgrowth of national concern about poor performance of high schools. But CEP and others have criticized the tests' rigor and design.

Dr. Zahorchak said Pennsylvania law now gives districts too much latitude in deciding graduation requirements.

"Which means, ultimately, anything goes," he said, adding diplomas in some cases don't mean anything because students essentially are told, "Sit down, shut up and we'll pull you through."

The state board, which sets education regulations, will hold a public hearing on the proposal Wednesday and may vote at a meeting scheduled for Jan. 16 and 17. It then would go through the regulatory process, expected to take about a year, before becoming final.

The measure faces opposition from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and Pennsylvania State Education Association, a teachers union. Another union, AFT-PA, also has concerns.

"I think this is another program that sounds wonderful in theory, but in terms of practicality, is really very problematic," said John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and executive vice president of AFT-PA.

Mr. Tarka said teachers already face an "onslaught of testing and paperwork" because of requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Rather than requiring another test, he said, the state should funnel additional resources to financially ailing districts such as Pittsburgh.

Dr. Zahorchak said the new exams would cost the state millions of dollars a year, but couldn't be more specific. He said the state spends $40 million annually on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, the standardized test for grade 11 and grades three through eight required by NCLB.

Rather than a single graduation test, the state is mulling a series of exams that could be used in place of traditional course finals. The program would consist of 10 exams -- three in math, two in language arts, three in social studies and two in science. A district could use state-created tests or its own, with state approval.

The math exams would include material covered in algebra 1, algebra 2 and geometry; the language arts exams would cover English 11 and English 12; the social studies exams would cover American history, world history and civics; and the science exams would cover biology and chemistry.

A student would have to pass at least five exams: one English, two math and one each in social studies and science.

But there are exceptions.

Students would be given credit for the math and reading exams if they score proficient on both sections of the PSSA. Students who pass Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams also would receive credit for graduation exams in those content areas.

The exams would be given as early as eighth grade to students taking algebra 1. The exams could be taken multiple times, and Dr. Zahorchak said results could be used to pinpoint students' weaknesses so they could be provided tutoring.

Joining him Dr. Zahorchak were Karen Farmer White, a state board member and vice president for education at WQED, and Linda Lane, the Pittsburgh district's deputy superintendent for instruction, assessment and accountability.

City school Superintendent Mark Roosevelt, who helped implement a high school graduation exam in Massachusetts while a legislator, supports Pennsylvania's proposal and worked it into plans for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program. In Promise, students who graduate in 2012 and beyond would receive up to $40,000 if they pass a graduation exam and meet other requirements.

But not all superintendents are as enthusiastic. John Hoover, superintendent of Hampton Township School District, said he has mixed feelings about the proposal and fears it's an attempted quick fix for deeply rooted academic problems.

"You're not going to find a test to cure societal issues or problems," he said.

According to the Center on Education Policy's 2007 study, 10 states have more lenient grading on graduation exams than on other tests they administer to meet NCLB requirements. Achieve Inc., another Washington-based education group, said in a 2004 report that graduation exams it studied in six states weren't "overly demanding."


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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