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Amid Controversy, Pa. Board Adopts 'Learner Outcomes'

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After months of delays and protests, the Pennsylvania state board of education last week adopted with only minor changes a set of learner outcomes that all students will be expected to meet in order to graduate from high school.

In approving the 55 outcomes, the board refused to accept all of the changes requested by Gov. Robert P. Casey, who had urged the board last week to drop many of the proposed rules that had generated controversy.

Over the past few months, hundreds of parents have staged protests against the proposals, charging that they would force schools to teach students "values'' rather than basic academic subjects.

Governor Casey, in a statement, called the board's action "ill advised,'' and said it would make the job of winning support for the plan more difficult.

The vote, he said, "virtually guarantees that the counterproductive, distracting debate over so-called values will only escalate, to the detriment of our focusing on the basic purpose of these reforms: improving the academic excellence of all students to world-class standards.''

But Rep. Ronald R. Cowell, the chairman of the House Education Committee and a member of the state board, said panel members felt that the Governor's recommendations would "undermine'' the plan. He said the outcomes represent a response to the demands of the public and business community for a set of expectations for student performance.

"Too many students graduate from high school without the essential skills and essential knowledge necessary to survive in the 21st century,'' Mr. Cowell said.

He acknowledged that the proposals will continue to generate controversy in the legislature, which must review the regulations before they go into effect. Lawmakers may also reintroduce legislation, which was considered in the Senate last year, to declare the rules null and void, he said.

But Representative Cowell added that the board must do a better job of informing the public what the rules are all about--as well as what they are not about.

"A lot of people have mistakenly read more into what the state board has done than is the case,'' he said.

Big Step in Shift

The board's action last week represents a significant step in its move to make Pennsylvania one of the first states to shift from regulating inputs--such as course requirements--to setting goals for student performance and allowing schools flexibility in how they attain them.

The board approved the structure of the plan last March, but delayed adopting the specific outcomes until after a period for public comment. (See Education Week, March 11, 1992.)

The panel put off a vote on the outcomes in September amid criticisms from Representative Cowell and others that many of the proposed outcomes lacked specificity and were difficult to measure. Members then revised the proposal, and were ready to vote in November when they acceded to a request from Governor Casey to postpone their action for further study.

Last week, on the eve of the board's vote, Mr. Casey--who emphasized that he continued to support the reform--proposed that the board delete nine proposed outcomes that have proved the most controversial.

These include proposals to insure that students demonstrate knowledge and understanding of: appreciating and understanding others; personal, family, and community living; and wellness and fitness.

"Some of the language in controversy is not objectionable at all, and is indeed laudable,'' Governor Casey wrote to Secretary of Education Donald M. Carroll Jr. "But that is not the point.''

"Wholly apart from the language itself,'' he continued, "my concern is that this controversy, unless addressed now in a decisive way, will continue to fester and become, at best, a major distraction from achieving the important goals of the proposed changes.''

In addition to recommending the elimination of the nine outcomes, Governor Casey also proposed that the board review the outcomes annually, rather than every three years; that the state administer a new test based on the outcomes to all students in 1994, rather than to only a third of the students; and that it drop a questionnaire that has accompanied the state test.

That questionnaire, which asks students about their television viewing, breakfast habits, and other topics, has been criticized as intrusive.

Mr. Casey also proposed that the board develop precise standards for student performance, as well as the outcomes, and that it join the New Standards Project, a national consortium of states that is developing a national examination system based on high standards for performance.

Board 'Committed' to Rules

Robert E. Feir, the executive director of the state board, said the board agreed to drop the questionnaire, to conduct an annual review of the rules, and to join the New Standards Project. The panel will consider revising the test schedule and developing the performance standards, he added.

But board members are "committed to keeping'' the proposed outcomes, he said, and agreed to eliminate only two of the nine targeted by Governor Casey: one that requires students to know and use community health resources, and another that requires them to "demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of families.''

Representative Cowell said that a large part of the board's task in educating the public about the plan is to emphasize that local school districts will be free to decide how to attain the outcomes.

"A lot of people have commented on the regulations who haven't read them,'' Mr. Cowell said.

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