HARRISBURG - The state Board of Education approved yesterday proposed new tests to measure Pennsylvania students' competence to graduate from high school.
The 14-2 vote cleared the way for months of regulatory review of the Keystone Exams, including legislative scrutiny.
The Keystone Exams would replace the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests administered in 11th grade.
Students would take the exams on specific subjects throughout their high school years. The scores would count as at least one-third of their final grade.
Proponents say the Keystone Exams would more effectively measure student progress toward statewide academic standards while allowing local districts to substitute their own tests with state approval.
Board Chairman Joseph Torsella said the proposal would ensure that "every Pennsylvania graduate, in every corner of the state, leaves high school with the tools he or she needs and deserves."
Under the proposal, Keystone Exams in English literature, algebra I, and biology would be introduced in the 2010-11 school year. From 2011-12 to 2015-16, exams in English composition, algebra II, geometry, and U.S. history would be added. Chemistry, civics, and world history exams would finish the list in 2016-17.
Students ultimately would have to pass six of the 10 exams - two in English, two in math, and one each in science and social studies - or demonstrate academic proficiency through one of several alternative methods, including state-approved local tests.
Locally, superintendents received the news with varying degrees of welcome.
Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was gratified by the board's vote. She testified in favor of the exams. "If young people spend 12 years in a school system, they ought to be able to pass a competency test that says they learned all that they needed to learn," Ackerman said.
She said she was committed to making sure Philadelphia students are ready to pass the tests in five years.
Joseph Bruni, superintendent of the William Penn School District, said he was reserving judgment.
Bruni said he liked the idea that local school boards and districts can have input, but he called the approved proposal "ambiguous, involved, and complicated."
Superintendent Clifford Rogers of the Perkiomen Valley School District said he did not object to "carefully constructed" standardized tests as long as they are used as intended and are one of several indicators to evaluate student progress. But he said he was waiting to hear more about the alternative methods that districts could use.
"I would want to see what those alternative methods are before I comment on how fair I think this is for a particular child," said Rogers.
Robert Kish, superintendent of the Pennridge School District, opposes the exams, calling them an effort to "satisfy somebody's sound bite" and an added burden on educators.
"Kids don't get better by being tested," Kish said. "They get better by being instructed."