The Pennsylvania state board of education has approved a new set of graduation requirements that would allow districts to offer four ways for students to prove their academic proficiency.
The panel’s unanimous vote Jan. 17 to change state regulations was an attempt to close what state officials viewed as loopholes in the way diplomas are conferred, but still preserve the state’s tradition of local school district control.
Board Chairman Karl Girton hailed the new rules as signaling an end to the “rubber yardstick” by which districts have been allowed to measure student proficiency.
“We want students with a basic set of skills and knowledge they need to engage in higher-order thinking skills and reason their way through complex problems,” he said.
If given final approval by a regulatory-review board and legislative education committees, the new regulations would take effect with the class of 2014. They would let the state’s 501 school districts keep using either of the two options they now have: a locally designed assessment, or the state’s standardized Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, the PSSA.
Districts would have two additional choices: To get a diploma, students could submit Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test results, or they could pass six end-of-course exams designed by the state.
Districts could offer any combination of the four options.
Those offering the locally designed assessment would have to pay for a rigorous review by state-screened auditors to ensure that those assessments were aligned to state standards. An earlier proposal to eliminate the local option sparked widespread opposition.
Pennsylvania appears to be unique among states that have adopted some form of state-level exit exam as a graduation requirement. Twenty-six other states have enacted rules requiring such tests, but none of those allows a locally designed option, according to experts who study those policies. States requiring exit exams are increasingly favoring a battery of end-of-course tests over a comprehensive exam. (“States Mull Best Way to Assess Their Students for Graduation,” May 16, 2007.)
The existing local option had begun to cause concern in some quarters in the Keystone State, however. In a September report, the advocacy group Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children pointed out that in the class of 2006, only 55 percent of those graduating had passed the PSSAs.
The rest had secured diplomas through the local option, either because they had failed the PSSAs, or because the local assessment was the only test their districts used for graduation. Because the state didn’t regulate the local tests, many activists argued, those graduates’ skills are in question.
“What we’ve been doing is letting our young people graduate ill-prepared for what’s next,” Joan L. Benso, the president of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, said in a recent interview.
Too Many Tests?
Daniel W. Fogarty, the co-chairman of the gubernatorial commission that studied and proposed the changes, said the panel deliberately built supports into the package. He noted that the state would have to offer districts model curricula and assessments, and make sure that districts provide remedial help for students who fail the tests.
Many educators and groups object to the changes. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association opposes, among other provisions, the rules for the local option.
“It has to be validated in so many ways that it will end up looking like just another PSSA test, and it will be so expensive to do that it won’t even be an option” except for the wealthiest districts, said Timothy M. Allwein, a longtime lobbyist for the organization.
The 185,000-member Pennsylvania State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, advocates addressing the graduation-competency problem by providing targeted technical assistance to districts.
“Just adding more tests won’t do anything to help districts,” said Jerry Oleksiak, the union’s treasurer.
Jack Maguire, the supervisor of the humanities curriculum in the 7,000-student Lower Merion district in Ardmore, just west of Philadelphia, said he fears that the abundance of tests would narrow high school curricula to focus only on that content. He also expressed concern that students would feel overwhelmed by so many tests.
“How many tests can you give a kid?” he said. “If you’re going to give exit exams, at least let districts opt out of the PSSA, or cancel it [in grade 11].”
Mark Roosevelt, the superintendent of the 31,000-student Pittsburgh school district, said he supports the new rules because they would help ensure that diplomas signify a certain baseline of academic skill. Even though half his district’s students graduate through the local option, he was confident the district could ready all students for the tougher requirements by the time the rules took effect.
“It’s our job to move our kids to whatever the standards are,” he said. “It’s our job to motivate kids, families, and everybody to understand that it’s important.”
Jacqueline L. Cullen, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Career and Technical Administrators, said the new rules could pressure districts to pull back from career, technical, and vocational education in favor of academic coursework.
“This could affect these kids’ ability to become competent in the careers they’ve chosen, and you could see more kids dropping out,” she said.
The Education Law Center, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group for disadvantaged students, contends that chronic underfunding of schools, outlined in a recent legislative study, makes it unreasonable to ratchet up testing requirements.
“It is fundamentally unfair to deny a high school diploma to students who, due to underfunding, have not received a quality education,” Baruch Kintisch, an ELC staff lawyer, said in written testimony for a Jan. 9 state board hearing.
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Education Week