Law & Courts

Penn. Graduation Requirements Spark Fresh Fight

By Catherine Gewertz — June 19, 2009 4 min read
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Pennsylvania’s governor and department of education have suffered the second big setback in one year in their push to revamp high school graduation requirements.

The latest twist came on Monday, when Gov. Edward G. Rendell’s administration temporarily shelved plans to develop graduation competency exams in hopes of making peace with legislative critics who felt the administration was moving too fast.

“Under the current circumstance and to allow the emerging consensus to develop, we will not spend funds for state-mandated graduation test development” under a seven-year contract signed last month, Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak said in a letter to ranking members of the House and Senate education committees.

The Pennsylvania Senate had voted 48-1 on June 10 to bar education leaders from taking any action to develop high school tests or curriculum without legislative approval and funding.

That was a response to the education department’s May 12 signing of a seven-year, $201 million contract with Maple Grove, Minn.-based Data Recognition Corp. to develop a model high school curriculum, end-of-course tests in four content areas, and a set of tools to help teachers diagnose academic struggles in middle and high school students.

Senators were miffed because they viewed the signing of the contract as a violation of the one-year moratorium, passed by the legislature in July 2008, that barred the education department from moving ahead with changes to graduation-requirement regulations.

The state board of education had approved new regulations in January 2008 that were controversial, and lawmakers had been negotiating changes with educators and state leaders during the moratorium when the state announced that the contract had been signed.

“We shot an arrow across the bow to let them know that we are all stakeholders in this and should be involved in the process,” Sen. Jane Orie, a Republican and the author of the most recent bill, said on June 11. “This was an affront to the legislature.”

Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman, a Democrat, said the contract “pulled the rug out from under our feet. It was an arrogant move. It’s not as if the font of all wisdom resides in the education department.”

Long-Running Debate

In January of last year, the state school board approved new rules expanding the number of ways that high school students could prove proficiency to earn their diplomas. Districts were allowed to let students use the results of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams to show proficiency, or pass six of 10 end-of-course tests that were yet to be designed.

They could also do it the ways they had been doing it, by passing the state’s 11th grade test, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or a locally designed assessment. But the state board imposed tighter controls on that local option, in response to a 2007 study that found only 55 percent of the state’s graduates had passed the PSSA.

The board said schools districts would have to submit their local tests for in-depth external validation, a move that sparked a backlash from groups that said such an approach was too expensive, imposed too many tests, and deprived districts of local control. (“Pennsylvania Board Approves New Exit Requirements,” Jan. 23, 2008.)

In the face of opposition from the state school boards’ association; the Pennsylvania State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association; and other groups, the legislature imposed the moratorium. In a compromise announced this past March, the state agreed to share the cost of the external validations, and allowed use of the end-of-course exams to be voluntary.

The state’s education secretary did not view the signing of the contract as a violation of the legislature’s moratorium.

Appearing before the Senate on June 2, Mr. Zahorchak said that allowing development of the tests and model curriculum—both of which were proposed as voluntary for districts—was no more a violation than soliciting public comment or collecting hundreds of local district assessments for analysis.

He also noted that the state’s fiscal 2009 budget provided $8 million for development of the tests, curriculum, and diagnostic tools. And he warned senators that further delay on building rigor into high school “would harm generations of kids, and you will take the responsibility for this.”

And while development of the graduation competency exams is on hold, work on other contract provisions—including development of a model curriculum and tools to monitor student progress—is expected to continue, Mr. Zahorchak said.

In addition, some activists are skeptical that the state will extend much longer the agreement it made in its March 2009 compromise to keep the end-of-course tests voluntary. “The state is not going to spend $201 million and seven years on something that is going to be optional,” said Tim Potts, a longtime education activist who runs a government-watchdog nonprofit group called DemocracyRisingPA.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Penn. Graduation Requirements Spark Fresh Fight

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