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Inquirer Editorial: Making diplomas more meaningful

Pennsylvania needs to raise the bar on student achievement by moving forward quickly with more rigorous high school graduation tests.

Pennsylvania needs to raise the bar on student achievement by moving forward quickly with more rigorous high school graduation tests.

Bowing to pressure from lawmakers, Gov. Corbett this week put the brakes on new graduation exams and comprehensive curriculum guidelines that were to take effect on July 1. The governor wants unspecified "minor modifications to the regulations," according to a spokesman. Any such changes should be made quickly so that the end-of-course graduation exams and Common Core Standards can be in place for the coming school year.

The state has already spent several years and more than $165 million developing the tests. Dragging the process out any longer would not be in the best interest of students or the state.

For years, Pennsylvania has allowed countless students to reach graduation day without meeting basic standards. The proposed exams would replace the state's high-stakes standardized testing, known as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, which has proven to be an ineffective measure of students' readiness to enter college or the workforce.

Also, doing away with a single "make-or-break" exam could give some students a better chance of success. Those who fail could get tutoring and a second chance to pass.

The plan initially backed by Corbett would have required seniors to pass tests in 10 subjects by 2015. But it was scaled back to three subjects, and implementation was delayed for two years.

Under the current proposal, beginning with the Class of 2017, students would have to pass end-of-course tests in algebra, biology, and literature to qualify for a diploma. Additional exams in other core subjects, including composition and government, would be phased in by 2020. That means this year's fifth graders would be the first to take the full regimen of more rigorous exams.

Originally, the exams were to count for one-third of a student's grade. But the state Department of Education now wants the exams to serve as the sole graduation assessment.

Allowing local districts to use the new exams but adopt their own local standards, as some are advocating, could ultimately water down the value of a diploma in the state. But some lawmakers are opposed to more rigorous academic standards, which prompted the latest delay. They have, however, raised valid concerns that the state mandate could cost districts as much as $300 million.

Still, if the state wants schools to stop handing out empty diplomas for some students, it must raise expectations. The governor and lawmakers must make it a priority.