Graduation exam compromise earning mixed grades
Monday, July 13, 2009

State Board of Education Chairman Joe Torsella considers the latest version of a state graduation exams proposal to be a "consensus" and a "common-ground compromise."

How else could the end-of-course exam proposal be regarded by someone who, in the last month, has spent days making rounds in Harrisburg -- talking to 20 to 30 legislators directly -- and more hours in meetings, on the phone and exchanging e-mails with those voicing opinions?

But the latest proposal, released on Thursday, would affect students entering seventh grade this fall. It has gotten mixed reviews.

"It's actually the furthest thing from a compromise," said Kim Geyer, the president of the Mars Area school board, who thinks that some opponents weren't given enough input.

On the other hand, Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, issued a news release applauding Mr. Torsella for "producing a compromise on one of the most difficult educational issues I've witnessed in all my years of legislative service."

In an unusual move, Mr. Torsella will give regulatory language to legislators in about two weeks -- before the state board considers it.

Mr. Piccola plans to introduce a resolution in the education committee for the full Senate to consider it before the state board vote.

"We like the compromise and we're hopeful the Senate will as well," said Dave Transue, executive director of the education committee.

Mr. Torsella is scheduled to appear before the Senate Education Committee tomorrow.

The latest version of Keystone Exams calls for the state to provide 10 end-of-course exams, beginning with English literature, Algebra 1 and biology in 2010-11, with other subjects being phased in through 2016-17.

The state would ask the federal government to permit the first three to be used to satisfy the No Child Left Behind Act beginning in 2012-13, thus enabling the state to discontinue the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams in 11th grade.

For graduation purposes, school districts would need to count the exams for at least one-third of a student's final grade or districts could use validated local assessments or Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams instead.

The state and school districts would share the costs of validating the local exams, which Mr. Torsella estimated as totaling about $5,000 to $15,000 per exam.

Students would have opportunities to get additional instruction and retake the Keystone Exams.

Some of the opponents of the earlier versions formed a group called the Coalition for Effective and Responsible Testing, which fielded its own proposal in which the exams would count for no more than 20 percent of a student's final grade.

One of the coalition members, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, withdrew its opposition as a result of the newest changes because the exams "no longer jeopardize Pennsylvania students' academic achievement and future success."

Another, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, still has some concerns.

The association's executive director, Stinson Stroup, said he thinks the 33 percent figure in the newest proposal is too high.

In addition, he thinks students should get credit for all percentage points they earn.

In the newest proposal, students will get a score for a whole subject test -- such as 70 percent -- that will be averaged in with their grades. But if the student does particularly poorly -- a figure yet to be defined -- the student would get a zero, even if the student scored some percentage points.

"Chairman Torsella is to be congratulated for trying to get everybody together, but we're not there yet," said Mr. Stinson.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which had worked out an earlier version with the state Department of Education, issued a statement saying the PSBA is "encouraged" by Mr. Torsella's efforts and the matter was to be reviewed by the PSBA board of directors over the weekend.

Under current law, the Keystone Exams proposal goes through a regulatory process beginning with the state board of education.

The state board last year approved an initial version of the exams, but the state Legislature prohibited further work to promulgate regulations until after June 30 this year.

Mr. Torsella said he plans to present the proposal to the state board, which has rescheduled its meeting from July in Pittsburgh to Aug. 12 and 13 in Harrisburg.

The board could then vote a final approval, which would trigger the final steps through the House and Senate education committees, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission and publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

Many regulations pass through the education committees without going to the full Legislature for approval.

But Nate Silcox, legislative assistant to state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, said the senator believes this one should go through the full Legislature.

"It's too important an issue," he said. "If you want programs to last and stand the test of time, you need to have a buy-in."

While Mr. Torsella said he did not expect everyone to drop all objections, he said he thinks the latest proposal preserves the goal of ensuring students are ready for success in college.

Mr. Torsella said the proposal no longer is an all-or-nothing gatekeeper because its weight is reduced from 100 percent to 33 percent; saves 18 hours of class time because it gets rid of the 11th grade PSSA, and costs $40 million less than the earlier proposal.

"I think the core principles of this are really a consensus point we ought to rally around because we've spent far too long arguing in Harrisburg and not nearly enough time moving the ball forward for kids in high schools."

Mr. Piccola noted the governor will still need to persuade the General Assembly to spend the money.

The initial contract with Data Recognition Corp. called for spending $201 million over seven years for the exams, a model curriculum and diagnostic tools.

The model curriculum and diagnostic tools were to be ready in 2010-11.

The Legislature must approve each year's budget, one year at a time.

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at or 412-263-1955.
First published on July 13, 2009 at 12:00 am
Featured Rentals