Pa. graduation exams near final approval

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HARRISBURG -- High school exit exams are one step closer to being a reality for the Class of 2015 and beyond.

The controversial proposal was approved yesterday in a 7-1 vote of the state Board of Education's Council on Basic Education. Approval of the full board, which meets this morning, also is required.

If approved, the first exams would be given in 2010-11 unless members of the General Assembly -- some of whom strongly oppose the Keystone Exams -- block implementation with floor votes.

Students would be required to take exams in core subject areas, and results would count for at least one-third of final course grades. Those who score below basic would receive zeroes for the tests and would have multiple chances to retake them after receiving remedial help. Students who still can't pass could demonstrate proficiency through individual projects.

The testing requirements would apply to all public schools in Pennsylvania, including charter schools. They would not apply to private and parochial schools.

The state education secretary could waive testing requirements for individual students in cases of extenuating circumstances. Local school boards could instead use other tests such as Advanced Placement exams or -- with approval of the state Education Department -- locally created tests.

Opponents say it's expensive to create new tests, that small and poor districts don't have the resources to create their own assessments and that the standardized tests would count for too large a proportion of grades.

Board of Education Chairman Joe Torsella said the proposal isn't perfect but it's a big step in the right direction.

"No one is entirely happy ... but in the end it will serve the interests of Pennsylvania students well," he said.

Student board member Gardiner Kreglow of Liberty High School in Bethlehem welcomes the new tests, which would replace the 11th grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. PSSAs are meant to measure progress of schools and districts, not individual students.

"Students are smart enough to say, 'If this influences my graduation I'm going to get my act together and get it done.' That's what this proposal does: It gets students to buy in," Mr. Kreglow said.

Board of Education member Mollie O'Connell Phillips, though, opposes the testing, calling it "a colossal waste of time and money."

The South Hills Area School District Association opposes it, too. Association President Shauna M. D'Alessandro told board members yesterday that the tests would be logistically burdensome and would take away local officials' option of awarding diplomas in extraordinary cases.

"Those decisions would not be made by people who mentor our students and know them well, but by a stranger in Harrisburg," she said.

The state board has been working on the testing requirements for more than two years, but the idea was met with such strong opposition that the Legislature set a one-year moratorium, which expired six weeks ago.

The proposal must go through the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and state attorney general and the House and Senate educations committees, which could block implementation.

That isn't likely because the Senate Education Committee voted 10-1 last month on a resolution in support of the tests.

Controversy reignited this spring with Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak signed a $201 million, seven-year contract with Data Recognition Corp. for development of the tests, model curricula and diagnostic tools.

A search of campaign finance reports reveals that Data Recognition executives contributed more than $26,000 to election efforts in 2006 and 2007. That includes $17,000 to Gov. Ed Rendell, an advocate of the testing requirement.


Tracie Mauriello can be reached at tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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