HARRISBURG -- It was a face-off worthy of a championship hockey game.
State Sen. Jane Orie glared intently at state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak yesterday as they clashed over Gov. Ed Rendell's ambitious plan to create new tests for high school students called Graduation Competency Assessments.
Ms. Orie, a McCandless Republican who often criticizes the governor, said the proposed tests -- in math, English, science and social studies -- would cost at least $45 million and are, in her opinion, not needed. She has introduced Senate Bill 281, which would stop all work by the Education Department on the new tests.
Simultaneously, the State Board of Education held a hearing at Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood -- one in a series of hearings soliciting public comment on the competency tests. First up to speak was none other than Steelers owner Dan Rooney, a supporter of the tests, who said he was testifying at the request of Mr. Rendell.
"Teachers, parents and anyone else who feels that our high school students can't achieve more must understand that we have no choice," he said. "We're not changing the standards -- they've already been changed."
The state is spending $8.6 million on the competency tests this year and is seeking another $9.8 million for fiscal 2009-10. They would be new exams that high school students would have to pass before they could get a diploma. There would be a total of 10 tests in the four areas and students would have to pass at least six of the 10, including at least one in each subject.
Dr. Zahorchak is a former teacher and school superintendent in Johnstown and also Mr. Rendell's point man on education issues. He asserted the new tests are needed to make sure that all Pennsylvania students have the basic skills they will need "to enter our increasingly global economy."
The vast majority of the speakers offering comment at the Youngwood hearing agreed with him.
"What has taken you so long?" asked David Pastrick, superintendent of the Somerset Area School District. "Unless enacted, many students will continue to be underserved and yet continue to graduate."
Thomas Hajzus, principal of Peters Township High School, said that high school graduation exams should be only the beginning. "We must consider additional assessment levels at all levels," he said, "not just the high school level.
George Lammay, principal of Bentworth High School in Bentleyville, was the only speaker at the Youngwood hearing opposed to the competency tests. He expressed concern that the tests would discourage students who are poor test-takers or non-traditional learners, leading to a higher drop out rate.
He also said that the tests would further erode local control.
At the Harrisburg hearing, Dr. Zahorchak answered such concerns by saying that districts wouldn't be forced to use the state competency exams. They could use a locally developed assessment test "as long as the local tests are shown to be as rigorous as the state's."
Ms. Orie noted that many educators around the state and the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a major teachers' union, oppose the new tests.
"PSEA stands in opposition to this proposal or any other that seeks to implement yet another high-stakes test for our students," said Jerry Oleksiak, a PSEA official. "There are too many unanswered questions for the commonwealth to move forward and implement a policy that will have wide-ranging social, economic and educational impacts."
He said 24 groups "have signaled their opposition" to the competency exams.
Ms. Orie said the state is already facing a $2.3 billion deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30 and could face a similar size deficit for fiscal 2009-10, which starts July 1.
In addition to the $18 million budgeted in 2008-09 and 2009-10 for the test development, she said the new tests would cost $3 million each, or a total of $30 million. Additional money will be needed for "professional development" for teachers in connection with the tests, she added.
She berated Dr. Zahorchak for spending $8.6 million this year on "requests for proposals" from companies interested in developing the tests. She contended that action violated a law passed by the General Assembly that nothing would be done this year on the competency tests.
Dr. Zahorchak insisted he'd obeyed the law, and not developed any regulations governing the new tests, but he said he wasn't barred from taking any action. A contract for test development may soon be issued.
Ms. Orie said that with Mr. Rendell having a limited time left in office -- he leaves in January 2011 -- she didn't see why the state is trying to implement a controversial, costly program that may just be scrapped by the next governor.
Some Democrats also oppose the competency exams. Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, also sharply criticized the new test idea, saying it could cause high school teachers to merely "teach to the test" rather than a broad-based approach to subjects. He also said students "learn differently" and some of them know subjects well but don't do well on tests.
Tom Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254. Anya Sostek can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1308.