Pennsylvania's business community strongly supports the creation of a mandatory, statewide series of high-school graduation exams to improve the skills of the state's workforce, according to a poll released yesterday.

Commissioned by the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council Education Foundation, the poll found that 80 percent of the 400 business leaders who responded support creating such exams.

More than 68 percent said they receive applications from unqualified job seekers, while 56 percent are concerned about being able to find qualified candidates for job openings.

"We have plenty of anecdotal evidence that employers have concerns," said David W. Patti, president and chief executive of the foundation's parent, the Pennsylvania Business Council.

The findings support the position of Gov. Rendell, who has been campaigning for more than a year to win support for the so-called Keystone Exams.

To address the lack of uniform graduation requirements, the state Board of Education approved in 2008 the creation of 10 exams in core academic subjects; students would have had to pass six to graduate.

In the face of opposition from local school boards and legislators of both parties, the Legislature placed a one-year moratorium on the test-creation process. The end of the moratorium next month will trigger a regulatory review that could take a year.

Michael Race, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the poll is good news.

"It reiterates what we have found all along and said all along, that we have to do more to ensure that we have a uniform level of preparedness in our graduates," he said.

The Rendell administration, he said, supports making the exams mandatory for the class of 2015.

Angering critics once again, this month Rendell's education department awarded a $201 million contract to a Minnesota company to develop a voluntary graduation exam, model curricula and diagnostic tools to help struggling students. *