HARRISBURG - After years of debate, Pennsylvania is going ahead with a plan to offer school districts state-approved final exams that students would have to take to get diplomas.

The controversial plan that received a 4-1 vote of approval from a state review board yesterday is sure to change the lives of thousands of public-school students and teachers.

Gone, for 11th graders at least, will be the PSSAs - the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment math, reading, and science tests that grew out of the No Child Left Behind law.

The new Keystone exams, to be phased in starting next school year, signal a major shift in control of education policy: The tests would come out of Harrisburg, not local districts. So would the suggested curriculum.

Critics warned yesterday that the plan would undermine local control, or even, as one NAACP leader put it, "hold children accountable" for a broken education system.

Use of the new exams as a graduation requirement is optional; each school board can vote on whether to make them a condition for a diploma. In participating districts, students would take the first Keystone exams in biology, Algebra I, and literature in the 2010-11 school year.

The number of final exams would expand, and by 2015, students now in seventh grade would need to pass six Keystone-covered courses to graduate.

The new subject tests will cost the state an estimated $176 million to develop and administer through 2014-15, including a related model curriculum and diagnostic tests to identify struggling students. The tests would cost $31 million to administer each year after that.

"This is a great day for Pennsylvania's kids," said Joseph Torsella, chairman of the state Board of Education, which proposed the new regulation. "We've now said we're going to hold ourselves responsible for giving kids what they need to succeed" in college and the workforce.

So far, 33 school district leaders, including those from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Delaware County's Chester Upland, and Bucks County's Palisades, have endorsed the proposal.

About 70 school boards passed resolutions this year opposing the tests. They include Upper Darby, Central Bucks, Lower Merion, and Tredyffrin/Easttown.

Test supporters argue that tens of thousands of students now graduate without needed skills. This year, for example, in 132 of the state's 500 school districts, 50 percent or more of 11th graders failed the math or reading PSSA tests.

All students "ought to be able to pass a competency test that says they have learned all they need to learn in order to receive a meaningful diploma," said Arlene Ackerman, the Philadelphia district superintendent, in written testimony submitted yesterday to the state Independent Regulatory Review Commission. "Our children deserve no less."

The commission is a body appointed by the governor and legislative leaders to review proposed new state regulations. The plan is to take effect in the next few months, after a review by the state Attorney General's Office.

Pennsylvania thus joins 10 other states using state-approved final exams as a condition for graduation; 15 others, including New Jersey, also use state-approved exams, but those are general-knowledge tests and not tied to specific courses.

Keystone tests would eventually be developed for 10 math, English, science, and social-studies courses and would account for a third of a student's final grade.

The Keystones offer little wiggle room: Pupils scoring the equivalent of a D or an F would get a zero on the exam.

Algebra I, literature, and biology Keystones are also scheduled to replace the required PSSA exams for all high school students in 2012-13.

In districts using the Keystones as graduation requirements, students failing a test would get extra help and then retake parts they didn't pass. If they fail again, they could complete a special project to get more credit. Students could also pass equivalent Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests to meet the requirements.

Some special-education students would not have to take the tests to graduate.

School districts opting not to use the Keystone tests for graduation would instead have to give students "local assessments" to make sure they had mastered the required subjects.

These could range from a locally developed test to using a "portfolio review" that evaluates a student's overall work in a course. All local assessments would be reviewed to ensure that they, too, live up to state standards.

Districts would incur extra costs for Keystone tutoring, and some would have to pay to develop alternative assessments if they do not use the Keystone exams.

Opposition remains strong from some school boards and legislators who say the proposal undermines local control and undercuts legislative authority. And some advocacy groups, including the Pennsylvania State Conference of NAACP Branches, say they fear otherwise-qualified students who fail the tests will be denied diplomas.

Calling a diploma "the gateway to the economic landscape," Joan Duvall-Flynn, president of the NAACP's Media area chapter, told the state commission yesterday that the new tests would "hold children accountable for the failures of the system."

Lawrence Feinberg, a Haverford School District board member, told the commission that the state should take the funding for Keystone tests "and give it to the kids who need it - that's where the money should go."

The initial 2008 proposal from the state board of education was for a set of stand-alone subject tests, not final exams, that students would have to pass to graduate if not proficient on the PSSA or on an approved local assessment.

A storm of opposition ensued, with legislators passing a one-year moratorium on the proposal in July 2008. Torsella and the state education board eventually revised the proposal and won over key legislators and the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy

at 610-313-8134 or at dhardy@phillynews.com.