HARRISBURG -- The state Board of Education yesterday unanimously approved a plan requiring students to pass a series of tests before graduating.
Beginning with the Class of 2014, students would have to pass tests in math, English, science and social studies. Students will be exempt if they pass the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, advanced placement exams or International Baccalaureate tests.
"This is a gut-wrenching and difficult decision," said board member James E. Barker of Erie. "It's clear that we have to give every student an opportunity [to be] well-prepared to compete, not only locally, statewide and nationally, but globally."
Education Secretary Gerald R. Zahorchak said the testing requirement makes diplomas meaningful because it guarantees colleges and prospective employers that graduates have met minimum academic standards.
Opponents of the graduation requirement say it is unfair to students with test anxiety, and will encourage teaching to the test. They also contend it may lead struggling students to drop out and take control away from local school districts and teachers.
The plan still must go through the House and Senate education committees and the Intergovernmental Regulatory Review Commission, which will ensure the change does not conflict with other laws and regulations. Technical changes are likely, but substantive ones are not, officials said.
Yesterday's vote sets that process in motion. It could take up to a year.
The plan would require students to pass state-sanctioned final exams in English, math, science and social studies. Those who fail would have several chances to retake sections of the test where they showed deficiencies. Remedial help, including tutoring, would be offered.
Some board members, including Esther Bush of Pittsburgh, were concerned that some schools might not provide enough remedial help. Remediation should be equitable, said Ms. Bush, who wants to ensure urban students and minorities aren't shortchanged.
"When we provide this remediation, we need to make sure it's being provided to all students," she said. "If we are truly serious, we need to make sure that every single student is going to get the same kind of support when we talk about remediation. ... History has proven that things aren't always implemented that way."
Exit exams have been under consideration for at least two years. Board members took up the idea because they were concerned that 45 percent of Pennsylvania diplomas were awarded to students who were not able to perform proficiently on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.
The change approved yesterday offers "a basket full of assessments whereby ... students could demonstrate in a measurable, uniform way that they have the skills that they need to succeed beyond high school," said board President Karl L. Girton of Millville, Columbia County.
"We believe this is an incremental and relatively rich way to move in that direction," he said.
Tracie Mauriello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141.