Graduation exam rule expected to pass

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State public high school graduation exams -- once so controversial that about 20 organizations as well as at least 200 school boards opposed them -- now are expected to be approved by the state Board of Education when it meets in Harrisburg today and tomorrow.

State board chairman Joseph Torsella expects the regulations for the end-of-course Keystone Exams will be approved without substantive changes.

"I've been in touch with the board throughout this process," he said this week. "I think it's not the regulation that any one person would have written, but it's one people feel has been improved by the process."

Even Mars Area School Board President Kim Geyer, an outspoken opponent who plans make more public comments at the board meeting, said, "I'm assuming it will pass."

This doesn't mean opponents have given up.

While he thinks the measure is likely to pass the state board, Nate Silcox, legislative assistant to state Sen. Jane Orie. R-McCandless, said, "We're not conceding defeat on the whole issue."

The latest version of the regulations calls for the state to provide 10 end-of-course exams, beginning with English literature, algebra 1 and biology in 2010-11, with other English, math, science and social studies subjects being phased in through 2016-17.

The state would ask the federal government to permit the first three to be used to satisfy the No Child Left Behind Act beginning in 2012-13, thus enabling the state to discontinue the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams in 11th grade.

The tests would be administered to all public school districts in Pennsylvania, including charter schools. But it would not apply to private or parochial schools.

For graduation purposes, school districts would need to count the exams for at least one-third of a student's final grade or districts could use other options, including validated local assessments or Advanced Placement exams instead. Districts also could set up a project for students who failed exams.

The education secretary would be able to waive any provisions on a case-by-case basis for "good cause," such as serious illness, death in the family or transfer from out-of-state in the senior year.

The state board announced more than two years ago that it was going to take up the issue of graduation competency assessments and more than a year ago gave initial approval to a plan. The plan generated so much criticism that the state Legislature set a one-year moratorium -- which expired at the end of June -- on further regulatory action.

Controversy flared again this spring when state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak signed a $201 million, seven-year contract with Data Recognition Corp. to develop voluntary tests, a model curriculum and diagnostic tools.

Mr. Torsella spent the summer speaking with legislators and others, arriving at the current proposal, which he calls a "common-ground compromise."

He thinks four elements of the latest proposal made the Keystone Exams more acceptable:

• Replacing the 11th-grade PSSA with the Keystone Exams for federal accountability purposes will save instructional time.

• Weight of the tests reduced from 100 percent to 30 percent

• Students who fail one or more Keystone Exams may do a project.

• The phase-in plan reduces some costs. Overall, the plan is $40 million less than the initial plan.

Today, the board's Council of Basic Education will discuss and hear more public comments on the issue. If it makes a recommendation, the full state board will vote tomorrow.

Even if the state board approves it, the measure still would have to go to the governor's office; undergo budget, legal and policy reviews; be formally submitted to the Senate and House education committees and sent to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and the attorney general before taking effect.

Each of the education committees would have 20 days after they receive the measure to vote or else it would be deemed approved.

Legislative committees must have at least 20 days to review a new regulation but can take action up to 24 hours before the Independent Regulatory Review Commission's public meeting, which must take place at least 30 days after the IRRC receives the regulation.

Prospects of a favorable reception in the committees have improved.

In an unusual and symbolic move, the Senate Education Committee adopted a resolution in support of the latest plan on a 10-1 vote on July 28.

A week ago, the House Education Committee -- unanimously except for two who did not vote -- gave a negative recommendation on Ms. Orie's bill to require legislative approval for changes in graduation requirements.

The latest version has gotten mixed reviews from various groups.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association -- part of a group called the Coalition for Effective and Responsible Testing which fielded its own proposal -- withdrew its opposition.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which had supported an earlier proposal, said this one needed more work.

The NAACP State Education Committee last month issued a statement saying the regulations "are unfriendly and potentially harmful to a great many of the youth of Pennsylvania."

Mr. Torsella sees the exams, model curriculum and diagnostic tools as a package that will move Pennsylvania students ahead.

"It's clear that while we've made real strides in many different levels of education, at the high school level, we're still not doing the job we owe to Pennsylvania kids," Mr. Torsella said.

"I think this will be a huge step forward in guaranteeing when we graduate a young man or woman from a Pennsylvania high school, he or she will have the skills he or she needs to compete in the economy and be a good citizen."


Correction/Clarification: (Published Aug. 13, 2009) Legislative committees must have at least 20 days to review a new regulation but can take action up to 24 hours before the Independent Regulatory Review Commission's public meeting, which must take place at least 30 days after the IRRC receives the regulation. This story on Keystone Exams as originally published Aug. 12, 2009 incompletely described the timeline.

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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