Tens of thousands of Pennsylvania high school seniors who failed state math and reading tests got "empty diplomas" last year because they had not learned basic skills, Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak says.

Statewide, 45 percent of the 127,000 seniors failed the tests, leading Zahorchak to lament that diplomas were awarded to many who "show up and shut up."

Zahorchak used that statistic to push for rules that would require most of this year's sixth graders to pass either the PSSA - Pennsylvania's No Child Left Behind benchmark test - or a new set of state tests before they could graduate in 2014.

The proposed regulations are scheduled for an initial vote today by the state Board of Education. To go into effect, the rules must undergo a lengthy review, including legislative scrutiny.

Seniors are already supposed to meet state standards to graduate, but school districts do not have to prove that the students have in fact mastered the required skills. As a result, many aren't prepared when they show up for work or college, Zahorchak said.

The problem is not limited to struggling urban schools.

In the Philadelphia School District, 7,707 of 10,132 members of the 2006 graduating class failed PSSA math or reading tests as juniors.

In a quarter of the 64 Philadelphia-area Pennsylvania districts, at least 50 percent of seniors failed the tests.

Even in high-achieving districts such as Unionville-Chadds Ford and Lower Merion, slightly more than 20 percent of graduates did not pass at least one test.

In some districts, most of the students in that category are special-education students.

The proposed regulations would create 10 state tests, called Graduation Competency Assessments, in math, language arts, science and social studies. Those tests would likely become final exams for most students. To graduate, students would have to pass six GCAs or the PSSA math, science and reading tests plus a social studies GCA.

Those who fail would get remedial classes and take the test again. Students with learning disabilities could still graduate if educators decided they had achieved their goals. Limited-English students would get special help, such as bilingual dictionaries.

State officials say they did not have a price tag for the proposed tests, but the PSSA cost $32.7 million to develop, administer and score last school year.

School districts could still use local tests to grant diplomas, but they would have to enlist outside experts to rule that their test is at least as difficult as the state GCA. Many superintendents say that would be too costly and time-consuming.

Asked about the proposed requirements, Philadelphia and suburban students didn't like them.

Jamillah Hannibal, a college-bound senior and student activist at the the Kensington International School of Business, Finance and Entrepreneurship, said she had not passed her math PSSA. "I'm not educationally challenged. I can do the work, but tests are not my strong point," she said. "I've worked my four years so hard to graduate, and [under the proposed regulations] I couldn't see my diploma because of one test? That's wrong."

At the West Chester Area School District's Henderson High School, senior Sanjay Kataria said no "empty diplomas" were granted there. "Teachers will make sure that if students are to graduate, they deserve it," even if a student can't pass a state test, he said.

About 30 percent of the district's graduates failed 2006 math or reading tests, state data show.

Classmate Deanna Talbot agreed: "Graduation should be a completion of everything you've learned. . . . Not being able to graduate because of some number [on a state test] is probably one of the most horrible things that could happen to a student."

Many employers have a different view. Tracee Hunt, vice president for human resources at the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and a member of the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, a government-chartered organization that studies employment issues, said she "wholeheartedly" favored the tests. "You end up hiring individuals who have a high school diploma, and when you start to go through the training process, you find out that they will not be able to handle the job, based on their competency levels," she said.

Many students entering college also lack skills. Only 21 percent of students applying to four-year institutions nationally are college-ready in all areas, Edna Baehre, the president of Harrisburg Area Community College, told the state Board of Education last week.

At the 37,000-student Community College of Philadelphia, 46.4 percent of new students in the fall of 2006 took some remedial - below college-level - courses, including 26.9 percent who took all remedial courses, said spokesman Anthony Twyman.

Many critics of the proposal say instituting the new system without first fully funding public education would hurt students in underfunded schools. They point to a recent study commissioned by the state legislature that said Pennsylvania's public schools are underfunded by $4.6 billion, with the poorest districts showing the largest funding gaps.

Dolores Shaw, the mother of a junior at Philadelphia's Mastbaum Area Vocational Technical School and a leader of the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project, a Kensington-based community coalition, opposes the new tests. "It's not fair. The high schools have to be changed first to meet the educational standards that this kind of testing is going to require," she said.

Supporters of the proposal say those who fail would get remedial help to catch up and graduate.

That sounds good, critics say, but the legislature would have to fund any new programs, which may not occur.

Other critics say using a paper-and-pencil test as the sole standard for whether a student has mastered skills shuts out students who are bad test-takers but do well in real-life settings.

Shanee Garner, an organizer for EPOP and a 2003 West Philadelphia High graduate, said she found when she entered Chestnut Hill College that she needed remedial math classes. She took them and graduated last year. If there had been GCA tests and she didn't pass them, she said, she would have been denied the chance to go to college. "You're holding students in underfunded districts to the same standards as Lower Merion - that's unacceptable," she said.

In many school districts, officials say they oppose the test requirement because they've seen students who failed the PSSA go on to academic success.

In Chester County's high-achieving Tredyffrin/Easttown district, "from kindergarten through 12th grade, our students demonstrate proficiency on state standards through many assessment methods other than traditional standardized testing," administrator Richard Gusick told the state education board. Only 13.5 percent of seniors had failed the tests.

Some districts support the proposal.

In the Chester Upland School District, where 96.4 percent of graduates failed reading or math - the highest rate in the region - Superintendent Gregory Thornton said the requirement was necessary to show that graduates had basic skills.

"I'm fearful of a high-stakes world that our youngsters will not be prepared for," he said.

If Pennsylvania adopts the proposed plan, it would join 22 states with some kind of high school exit exam; four more states plan to implement them by 2012.

New Jersey has had a state graduation test since the early 1990s. Last school year, of the 98,645 students who first took the High School Proficiency Assessment in their junior year, 11,365 failed math and 6,181 failed language arts. Most got a diploma through an alternate route called the Special Review Assessment, which involved remedial classes and a different kind of test, state officials said. The alternate system is under review.