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State board amends its graduation test proposal

December meetings will be set to discuss a plan for statewide subject-area testing

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

After months of public criticism, the state Board of Education has decided to modify a proposal requiring students to either score proficient on the PSSA test or pass a series of subject tests in order to graduate from high school.

The controversy over proposed statewide graduation tests comes amidst a nationwide debate, intensified by No Child Left Behind, over the appropriateness of high-stakes testing to determine school quality and student academic fitness.

Under revised, proposed regulations explained at a Nov. 14 meeting of a board committee, local districts would be able to use their own graduation assessments, but those assessments would have to be independently validated for academic rigor. The new proposal will be discussed at three public meetings, times and places to be announced, in December.

“The [new] regulation that is drafted puts in end-of-course assessments, but if districts want to reject them, they have to have an approved, statistically valid alternative,” said Donna Cooper, Gov. Rendell’s policy chief. She said the Department of Education would have to approve the alternative.

Board member Karen Farmer White said the board was looking at accommodations, some federally mandated, for special education students and English language learners, and at letting students retake only the parts of the proposed competency tests that they fail. Any students who pass comparable Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate subject tests would be exempt from the state tests.

“We want to continue the dialogue to assure that every student graduates with the knowledge and skills they need to participate in the economy,” White said.

She and board chairman Karl Girton offered no timetable for adoption of the new graduation standards, which were originally slated to take effect for the class entering high school in 2009.

A statewide graduation standard had initially been proposed last December by the Governor’s Commission on College and Career Success, which expressed alarm that too many students were being awarded diplomas without being proficient in reading, writing and math.

Current state regulations allow local school districts to determine whether students meet state standards in awarding a diploma. But Girton said that some 54,000 students graduate annually without scoring proficient or better on the PSSA. “That disparity speaks volumes,” he said.

The board proposed using nine competency tests, three in math, two in science, two in history, and two in English. The tests would be given starting in ninth grade and students who fail would be given extra help.

But the proposal ran into vociferous opposition at several public meetings held over the summer and fall. Teacher unions said that additional testing would take time from instruction, and school boards said their power to set graduation criteria was being usurped. Advocates for students with disabilities and those in under-resourced districts said that the new standard would punish students for the state’s failure to provide them with adequate supports.

“The state’s role is not to put more tests on students, but to ratchet up the state’s monitoring of local assessments,” said Baruch Kintisch of the Education Law Center. He said he needed time to study the state’s new proposals further.

But Joan Benso, president of the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, said, “It is an injustice to let [students] graduate with a diploma that doesn’t prepare them.”

Her group did a study showing that students who attended state-related schools – Temple, Penn State, and the University of Pittsburgh – and scored proficient on the PSSA had a 90 percent chance of qualifying for credit-bearing courses in college, while those who scored basic had only a 50 percent chance.

The committee announced the decision on the same day that the board released its “costing-out” study saying that Pennsylvania needs to spend $4.8 billion more to ensure every child can meet the standards; Girton said these two events “converged by accident.”

“Is it more irresponsible to give students a diploma when they don’t have the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed, or more irresponsible to deny them diplomas because we are not able to give them the resources?” Girton said. He said the state needs to resolve both shortcomings, but added, “I’m concerned that as a state we don’t have the political will.”