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Policymakers Undecided Over Fate of Pa. Testing Program

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Six years after it was created as the centerpiece of Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh's plan for improving the schools, Pennsylvania's controversial student-testing program appears to be barely surviving.

The reading and mathematics tests, known as the Testing for Essential Learning and Literacy Skills program, or tells, are administered each year to every 3rd, 5th, and 8th grader in the state. The purpose of the program is to identify and provide with remedial help students who are struggling in basic skills. This past year, however, Mr. Thornburgh's successor, Gov. Robert P. Casey, and the legislature eliminated all state funds for remedial services to students who fail the tests. Secretary of Education Donald Carroll Jr. has proposed scrapping the tests outright. And educators continue to complain that the results of the tests are being misinterpreted.

The final blow to the program was expected last month, when the state board of education was scheduled to take up a proposal to suspend the tests for one year. But the board agreed to drop the effort after questions arose over whether it had the authority to do so.

Barring an attempt by the legislature to abolish the program between now and its adjournment at the end of next month, the tests will be administered as scheduled in March. And schools will still be required to provide extra help to students who fail them.

"What we have is a law requiring that the tests be given, and a law requiring remediation for kids who fail, and no funds to do it," said Robert Feir, executive director of the state board.

Used to Compare Schools

The major criticism of tells is that the exams have been used for a purpose for which they were never intended--rating and comparing schools and school districts.

"The tests only look at minimum competency in reading and math," noted Gerard Longo, superintendent of the Steel Valley schools and a member of the state board. "How do you measure the top and the middle, or competency in the sciences and humanities--all those things that are taught in a contemporary school district?"

That concern arose after Thomas K. Gilhool, the state's former education secretary, began making the test scores public on a district-by district basis. Although the state no longer publicizes the scores, news papers continue to publish results for the schools in their areas.

The tests endured another round of criticism last month, after studies were released indicating that low test scores were most closely correlated with the extent of poverty in a school district.

State officials also argue that the nearly $151 million spent on remediation since the program's inception has produced little improvement either in test scores or in the schools over all.

"It's generally agreed that you're no longer going to improve schools by sorting out kids and giving them a few minutes of extra help,'' said William Cooley, director of the Pennsylvania Education Policy Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

Broader Measures Urged

Some educators and policymakers across the state said they favored re placing the tests with broader measures of school quality or student achievement. One such proposal calls for the development of a ''report card" for schools or districts that would list scores on several subject- matter tests, per-pupil spending, average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, and dropout rates.

"I think there is a need or a desire on the part of policymakers and tax payers to have a better measure of what schools are accomplishing," said Representative Ronald R. Cowell, the chairman of the House Education Committee and an advocate of suspending the tests.

The state board is scheduled to re view regulations on curriculum and assessment this year.

But until there are better measures, warned Helen E. Caffrey, executive director of the Senate Education Committee, some policymakers will want to retain the tests.

"There needs to be a consensus first on what could or should be used instead," she said, "and that could take a while.

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