HARRISBURG -- State Sen. Jane Orie scored a victory over the Rendell administration yesterday in their battle over creating graduation competency assessment exams for high school students, but the administration isn't giving up.
The Republican-controlled state Senate approved Senate Bill 281, sponsored by the McCandless Republican. It would prohibit Gov. Ed Rendell and Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak from moving forward with statewide graduation requirements for high school students unless such tests are established by the General Assembly.
Ms. Orie sharply criticized Mr. Zahorchak recently for signing a $201 million, seven-year contract with Data Recognition Corp. of Minnesota to develop the 10 "exit exams," in subjects like algebra, reading and science, for use by students starting with the class of 2014.
Ms. Orie said such an expensive contract isn't justified at a time when the state faces a budget deficit of at least $3 billion. She also claims the proposed exit exams would duplicate existing tests, such as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, which is taken by students in various grades, including 11th.
She also thinks the proposed competency tests, officially called Keystone Exams, would "erode local control" of schools.
Mr. Zahorchak said the state needs to do more to ensure that Pennsylvania students graduate from high school with a basic knowledge of math, reading and science. Too many students, he said, now have to take remedial courses in such areas when they get to college.
He said the contract would only cost the state $8 million in fiscal 2008-09, which ends June 30, and $21 million for 2009-10. The contract would be funded by the Legislature on a year-to-year basis.
Mr. Zahorchak said the Senate vote, "though disappointing, does not change our commitment to ensuring that all young people graduate with a diploma that signals readiness for college and a changing workforce."
Mr. Rendell repeated his vow to veto the bill if the House approves it, which is questionable since Democrats control the House.
Mr. Rendell said many other states now have tough graduation requirements for their high school students and Pennsylvania is "a mockery" without the competency tests, which are supported by business groups and the state school board association.
He again blamed "the unions," especially a powerful teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, for heading up the opposition. He accused Senate Republicans of caving in to the unions on this issue.
"It's really something to see the rough, tough Republicans doing what the unions want," he said.
PSEA officials said the opposition to the tests includes many groups, such as the American Federation of Teachers, the Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals, the Pennsylvania Middle School Association, the NAACP and 200 elected school boards in the state.
Harrisburg Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254.