HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania is just two small steps from having required graduation exams, thanks to approval of the plan yesterday by the Intergovernmental Regulatory Review Commission.
The panel voted 4-1 to approve the exams, leaving a review by the attorney general's office and publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin as the final steps.
After the vote, state Board of Education Chairman Joseph Torsella, who spent much of the summer crafting what he called a compromise, issued a statement, saying, "This regulation means that starting with the Class of 2015, all Pennsylvanians will have confidence that a young man or woman with a Pennsylvania high school diploma is ready for college and the work force.
"I am glad that the IRRC approved our common sense, common ground approach," he said.
The panel spent four hours considering the measure and heard about 20 speakers, most of whom opposed the regulation.
The lone dissenter on the commission was Silvan B. Lutkewitte III, who did not give a reason for his vote during the meeting. Mr. Lutkewitte of Hershey was appointed to the IRRC by the House Republican floor leader in August.
Commission Vice Chairman George Bedwick of Dauphin County said the panel's jurisdiction is limited.
"I happen to agree with some of the things [opponents of the exams] said, but that's beyond our scope," said Mr. Bedwick, a former attorney for the House Democratic caucus.
Commission Chairman Arthur Coccodrilli of suburban Scranton said he was encouraged that education officials told him they would reverse direction if the Keystone Exams turned out to be as detrimental as some opponents warned.
Some have said that the exams would discourage students who have a hard time taking tests and would prompt them to drop out.
"It's tough on the commission to make decisions that have these kinds of ramifications," Mr. Coccodrilli said. "But I have faith in the state Board of Education that if this starts moving in the wrong direction, they are willing to change directions."
The regulation 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 plans to ask the federal government to permit the first three exams 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.
School districts would be required 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 a serious illness, death in the family or transfer from out-of-state in the senior year.
The initial proposal for end-of-course exit exams -- at first called graduation competency exams -- required students to pass six of 10 exams instead of including the exam in the final grade. Under the current plan, students who score below basic will get a zero on the test even if they scored some points.
The proposal was once so controversial that about 20 organizations as well as at least 200 school boards opposed them and the Legislature put a one-year moratorium on their promulgation. The state board approved the revised version in August.
Opponents of the exams told the regulatory commission that the testing program would cost too much to administer and be unfair to otherwise good students who perform poorly on standardized tests.
Joseph Acri, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals, argued that the PSSA is working.
"The students are becoming more proficient. We're doing a better job, and we'll continue to do a better job. We understand the system now," he said. "We're halfway to the moon and now we're going to change to another rocket ship."
Others, including state Rep. Will Tallman, R-Adams, suggested the exit-exam requirement conflicts with other statutes that give local school boards certain powers.
Commissioner John F. Mizner didn't buy that argument.
"I don't know what the function of the state Department of Education would be if it's just local [school boards] that have control," he said. "Neither the state nor the locals have absolute exclusive control but they exist together."
Some still hope changes will be made ahead.
Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, has been concerned about the impact the exams will have on students' grade point averages and how logistics will work. She is hoping for changes that will make it more possible to implement.
"I really think this is a severe flaw in the regulations," she said, adding she could support graduation exams as long as there were other avenues for graduation open. "We can get buy-in for high standards. We really can."
In a news release, state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, said, "While I am certainly disappointed in the commission's decision, I will continue to work in my capacity as a state senator to have my many concerns addressed as the regulations are implemented. It is also my hope that the next administration will take a fresh look at this issue to achieve real consensus on this issue."
But Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, who has been a supporter of the exams, said, "I don't know anything everyone agrees on in Harrisburg. I do know we have a common commitment to our kids achieving. My hope is that people will move forward and try to effectively implement this."