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Pa. Board Weighs Shift To Requiring Learning Outcomes

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The Pennsylvania State Board of Education is slated this week to vote on rules that would make the state the first to require students to master a set of learning outcomes, rather than take a prescribed number of courses, in order to graduate.

Under the regulations, which if approved would take effect this fall, the board would establish a set of skills and knowledge all students should attain, as well as assessments to measure student performance.

Districts would then develop strategic plans--which would have to be approved by the state board--outlining how they propose to enable students to acquire the learning outcomes. Students could then receive a diploma by demonstrating mastery on the outcomes, regardless of how many courses they took.

Robert E. Feir, the executive director of the board, said the proposal is aimed at shifting the state's focus from regulating the process of education to setting goals for the outcomes of schooling.

"Our regulations are very precise with respect to the process schools should follow, without stating the expectations for student achievement,'' Mr. Feir explained. "That gets in the way of people in schools teaching creatively, and using resources effectively.''

While several states have considered similar proposals, Pennsylvania would be the first to put such a system into effect statewide, according to Chris Pipho, the division director for state relations for the Education Commission of the States.

"This is a significant first step,'' Mr. Pipho said.

Although education groups in the state generally support the proposal, some have raised some concerns.

The proposal to eliminate coursework requirements would remove a "safety net'' that ensures that schools offer certain courses, warned Bonnie Squires, the assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

And a group of parents from across the state--some 300 of whom packed a board committee hearing on the plan late last month--say the learning outcomes the board is currently considering measure student attitudes, rather than academic skills.

But State Representative Ronald R. Cowell, the chairman of the House Education Committee and a member of the state board, pointed out that the learning outcomes are not expected to be approved until September. He added that his panel would hold hearings on them beginning next month.

"I very much support the shift from the prescription of input to, for the first time, the articulation of outcomes,'' Representative Cowell said. "But what remains to be seen, and debated, are the outcomes themselves.''

Following a National Trend

The move by the Pennsylvania state board follows a national trend toward evaluating schools on the basis of student outcomes, rather than on inputs, such as coursework.

The Minnesota legislature, for example, in 1989 approved a pilot program to test such a system in 10 districts.

New York State's "new compact for learning,'' moreover, would evaluate students and schools on the basis of performance. The state board of regents, which approved the plan last year, has appointed a committee to help draw up the learning outcomes and a new assessment system to measure student achievement. The assessments are expected to be field tested in 1993, a spokesman for the state education department said.

In Pennsylvania, the effort to change the system began in 1990, when the state board undertook a review of its regulations on curriculum, instruction, and assessments, according to Mr. Feir.

Following 10 public hearings, 12 town meetings, and "dozens and dozens'' of meetings with education, business, and parent groups, he said, the board came up with the rules that it will consider this week.

Under the proposal, the board will outline learning outcomes in each of 10 curricular "goals of quality education.'' The goals are in the areas of communications, mathematics, science and technology, environment and ecology, citizenship, appreciating and understanding others, arts and humanities, career education and work, wellness and fitness, and personal, family, and community living.

The board will also develop statewide assessments of "a representative sample of student learning outcomes'' in reading, writing, and math, with additional subjects to be added later.

The rules would also require districts to develop six-year strategic plans for ensuring that students achieve such outcomes. Among other features, the plans must include a list of learning outcomes, consistent with the statewide set, that students must attain in order to progress from one level of schooling to the next, as well as plans for assessing student progress.

Some 100 to 150 of the state's 500 districts would begin developing their plans next fall. The rest of the districts would be phased in over the next two years.

Greater Efficiency Seen

Ms. Squires of the P.S.E.A. hailed the proposal as a major step in education reform.

But the teachers'-union official cautioned that the rules remove an important safeguard that ensures that all subjects are taught in schools.

"We have some concern that a school district, if it is so inclined, if it were not required to mandate hours in a subject, would do away with that subject,'' Ms. Squires said.

Thomas P. Gentzel, the associate executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, also noted that the proposal could impose additional costs on districts at a time when state education funding is being cut back.

But Mr. Feir said that the additional costs would not be onerous. In fact, he said, the proposal could end up saving schools money by allowing them to use their time and funds more efficiently.

"Simply by eliminating the input regulations,'' he said. "it would allow a more effective use of resources.''

Representative Cowell also said that the proposed rules provide accountability that the current system lacks.

Since students must demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes, he noted, a school could no longer get away with offering, for example, a watered-down English course, the way it could now.

But Mr. Cowell also cautioned that the state and district assessment systems have yet to be developed. Policymakers must ensure that they adhere to the agreed-upon outcomes, he said.

"These are systems about which we have to withhold judgment,'' he said. "They are critical.''

'Not the State's Business'

Perhaps the most vocal criticism of the proposed system has focused on the outcomes themselves. Although the board is not expected to formally approve the outcomes until September, after a period for public comment, the parents' group that attended last month's meeting has raised objections to the five-page draft the board is expected to discuss this week.

Peg Luksik, an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1990 and a leader of the group, said that the proposed set of outcomes deal with students' attitudes and values, not their cognitive abilities.

"It is not, parents say, the business of the state to be assessing and remediating the values and attitudes of students,'' Ms. Luksik said. "It is the business of the state to fill children's heads with the cognitive knowledge they need.''

Ms. Luksik urged the board not to approve the regulations before deciding on the outcomes.

"That's like asking us to buy a train without telling us where the train is going,'' she said.

But Mr. Feir responded that while the board has listened to criticisms from Ms. Luksik's group and others, he feels that the proposed rules have considerable support throughout the state.

"It is my belief,'' he said, "based on the several thousand people I have talked to, that most people who have thought about what schools need and what kids need are generally supportive of what we are trying to do.''

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