Debate rages over requiring students to pass tests to graduate

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HARRISBURG -- The Rendell administration says it has a new weapon in its ongoing battle to create "graduation competency exams," which Pennsylvania high school students would have to pass in order to get their diploma.

The state Department of Education surveyed more than 62,000 recent Pennsylvania high school graduates who attend one of the 14 State System of Higher Education universities (such as Slippery Rock, California, Indiana or Edinboro) or are students at one of Pennsylvania's 14 community colleges.

In a report released last week, the department found that one-third of them -- more than 20,000 high school graduates -- needed to take one or more remedial courses in college in core academic subjects, mainly math and English, "so they could catch up to their college-level peers."

The cost of the remedial courses, paid by the colleges, local taxpayers and the students themselves, exceeded $26 million, said state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak.

"These figures are startling,'' he said. "When some 20,000 students a year ... must take additional coursework just to catch up (with other college students), it's clear there is a problem in our high schools."

Mr. Zahorchak is the point man for one of Gov. Ed Rendell's top goals -- creating 10 new exams called "graduation competency assessments." They would test high school students' knowledge of basic and advanced algebra, geometry, biology, chemistry, English composition and literature, American history, civics and world history. Students couldn't graduate without passing at least six of the 10 exams.

Mr. Zahorchak said the 20,000 students who needed remedial college help are by no means all of the 2007-08 high school graduates -- just those who entered the 28 state-owned universities and community colleges,

But the fact that so many had to take remedial courses to understand college-level academics shows there's a major problem in many Pennsylvania high schools, where graduation requirements aren't tough enough, he said.

"Every one of these kids who leaves high school unprepared academically is missing out on job opportunities, and that impacts their lifetime earning capability," said department spokesman Michael Race.

If Mr. Rendell gets his way -- and that's a big if -- the new competency exams could be administered to some high school students as early as the 2010-11 school year. The senior class of 2014 would have to meet the new requirements in order to graduate. A student who fails one or more tests would get more instruction in high school and retake the test.

But the push for the new tests has drawn criticism from some state lawmakers, who say that with the state facing a $2.3 billion budget deficit, this isn't the time to embark on any expensive new programs. Some officials of the 501 school districts also don't like the new tests, fearing the state may be trying to impose authority over graduation standards.

"More than 23 education and children's organizations have been expressing adamant opposition" to the proposed competency tests, said Shauna M. D'Alessandro, a West Jefferson Hills school director. She called it "ludicrous that in the 21st century age of instant information ... our secretary of education continues to advocate tests that would encourage the further memorization and regurgitation of facts."

House Republican leader Sam Smith of Punxsutawney and Rep. James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, chairman of the House Education Committee, said they've gotten a lot of complaints about the new tests.

"We've spent millions developing and implementing the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, which already are considered by experts as a determinate of college readiness,'' said Smith aide Steve Miskin.

The fiscal 2008-09 budget contains an initial $9 million for seeking "requests for proposals" from test-writing companies. The state has received some proposals but hasn't awarded a contract yet.

And in early February, when Mr. Rendell unveils his new budget proposal, he'll ask for more money to continue development of the exams in 2009-10. Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo couldn't say how much more will be sought.

But a one-time expense of at least $45 million already is expected, since nine of the tests will cost $5 million each to prepare. The 10th test, one dealing with algebra, will be developed nationally and won't cost the state anything, said Mr. Race.

In addition to that $54 million, there will be additional annual costs for school districts to adminster the competency tests, if they get final approval from the state board of education and a state oversight agency called the Intergovernmental Regulatory Review Commission.

Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, said the governor couldn't have picked a worse time to spend state money on a test that she claims isn't needed.

"It is unbelievable that in today's economy that the governor wants to spend $45 million on a new test to address what he claims is a $26 million problem,'' she said.

Mr. Race noted that $26 million is an annual cost and would be higher if it included every single Pennsylvania graduate who goes on to college.

Ms. Orie argued the state doesn't need a new test "to tell us what we already know," that some students are deficient in some areas. "We have enough tests to know who is succeeding in schools."

With a big deficit looming, she said she'll continue "to fight this reckless spending." She plans to introduce a bill to prevent the Education Department from proceeding with the test without authorizing legislation from the General Assembly.

Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at or 717-787-4254.


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