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Pa. Board Delays Vote on 'Learning Outcomes' Plan

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The Pennsylvania state board of education has put off until November a vote on adopting a set of student "learning outcomes,'' amid warnings that the proposal in its current form could be rejected by the legislature.

The proposed set of about 50 outcomes represents the skills and knowledge all students must attain in order to graduate from high school in the state. Under a plan adopted last spring, Pennsylvania will be one of the first states to require students to master learning goals, rather than complete coursework, inorder to graduate.

But Rep. Ronald R. Cowell, the chairman of the House Education Committee and a member of the state board, argued that many of the proposed outcomes are too vague. And some--such as the one that states that students must "work effectively with others''--cannot be measured, he said.

Representative Cowell also called on the board to provide "benchmarks'' for student attainment in earlier grades, rather than just 12th-grade performance.

"If the proposals are brought back before the committee in their current form, or if only cosmetic changes are made, they would not be approved by the Education Committee,'' he warned.

"I very much support the thrust of what the state board is doing,'' he continued. "The question is the specific language of the student learning outcomes.''

Issue of 'Specificity'

Robert E. Feir, the executive director of the state board, said he thought board members could reach agreement on some of the issues Mr. Cowell's panel raised. But Mr. Feir added that the lawmakers' demand for more specificity might prove "problematic.''

"If by 'specificity,' he means people need to be able to understand what the outcomes expect of kids, he's absolutely right,'' Mr. Feir said. "But these tend to be rather broad statements. The more we break them down into subsets of skills and knowledge, the narrower the curriculum focus. That becomes a pretty major issue.''

Mr. Feir added that he did not think the two-month delay in the approval of the outcomes would pose a problem to districts that have begun developing plans to ensure that their students attain the outcomes. Under the proposal that created the outcome-based system, a third of the state's 500 districts were expected to begin preparing such plans this month.

Mr. Feir also said he disagreed with Representative Cowell's contention that the state this month "got out in front of itself'' by administering a revamped student assessment before adopting the learning outcomes.

"The question was, do we keep [the old test], which at this point serves no purpose, or do we begin to evolve into a new assessment system, which wasn't fully developed?'' he asked. "We chose to move in the direction we knew we were going.''

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