The Rendell administration's controversial push to develop state end-of-course exams that could become a graduation requirement in some school districts is in trouble again.

The proposal had been gathering momentum in recent months after meeting widespread opposition when it was introduced last year. But this week, both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Education Committee voted to block the initiative.

They were angry over the administration's signing of a $201 million, seven-year contract that includes development and implementation of the tests. Key legislators had requested that the contract, signed May 12, be shelved until an agreement on the tests was reached.

The committee on Tuesday endorsed a bill, proposed by Sen. Jane Orie (R., Allegheny), that would require legislative approval before the exams could be developed and would forbid spending money on them. It also would prohibit another aspect of the contract - the development of a model curriculum and online diagnostic tests - without legislative approval and bar the administration from signing any contract related to the initiative on its own.

The state Board of Education has been planning to propose graduation-test regulations in July; that process, which includes review by the legislature, could not take place if the Orie bill became law.

"At a time when the commonwealth is facing a $3.2 billion revenue shortfall . . . it is unconscionable to spend money on a new education program, particularly one that has met with bipartisan criticism," Orie told the committee before its vote.

In an interview yesterday, Committee Chairman James Roebuck (D., Phila.) said he, too, was upset by the contract. "We'll be looking at the issue," he said.

"If you are truly concerned about building consensus about a major educational policy issue," he added, "you should not charge blindly into the night when people are trying to forge a consensus. If there was no signed contract, the negotiations would still be going forward."

Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak said Tuesday in response to Senate criticism that the state proposed spending only $21 million next year on the initiative and that the contract spells out that each successive year of funding would depend on legislative appropriations.

If the legislature stops the proposed tests, curriculum, and diagnostics, he said, "it's not me that will be the person punished by it. It's generations of kids, and you will take the responsibility for this."

To graduate, students currently must pass the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment's 11th-grade tests or, if they fail, a school district assessment. That assessment could include standardized tests, successful completion of core courses, or an examination of course work.

The Rendell administration wants to develop a battery of tests in English, math, the sciences, and social studies to show that students meet state standards. Local assessments would undergo a review to determine that they, too, met standards. The Class of 2015 would be the first affected. Use of the tests by school districts would be voluntary.

For 18 months, Zahorchak has marshaled arguments for the tests, saying many high school graduates lack the skills for college or a job.

On Tuesday, he cited a poll commissioned by the Pennsylvania Business Council Education Foundation in which 80 percent of employers supported end-of-course tests and only about half deemed a diploma a good indicator of skills.

Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) told Zahorchak: "Yes, we want every student taught to the top of the curriculum. . . . But how you do the test, when the tests take place, what they will be has not been resolved. Support . . . for the test is contingent on what's in it."

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy
at 610-627-2649 or dhardy@phillynews.com.