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Criticism Flares Around New Pa. Graduation Tests

(Gov. Tom Corbett.  File photo by Tony Romeo)

(Gov. Tom Corbett. File photo by Tony Romeo)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — It seemed to hit the Capitol like a brick: a sudden groundswell of criticism over a move by Gov. Tom Corbett and the Pennsylvania State Board of Education to toughen academic achievement standards and tie them to graduation tests for the state’s roughly 1.7 million public and charter school students.

After hours of legislative hearings on the tests this week, top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature are trying to figure out what to do about the criticism.

“We are now running into bumps in the road very quickly that we didn’t anticipate,” House Education Committee Chairman Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, said Wednesday after listening in on a Senate committee hearing.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, seemed similarly surprised by the criticism, which came from teachers’ unions to conservatives who back public school alternatives. His office, he said, had received a deluge of requests from people wanting to testify.

“It took on a life of its own,” Folmer said.

After months of public meetings, a new set of proposed academic standards in math and English were approved in March by the State Board of Education, which is dominated by the governor’s appointees. The proposed Pennsylvania Common Core standards are currently in Corbett’s office undergoing a policy and cost review before they are to be sent in the coming weeks to a five-member state government regulations board whose approval is necessary before they can take effect.

Under the proposal, public school students in the 2016-17 school year must pass a set of three course-specific exams — algebra, biology and English literature — to graduate. Typically, most students complete the three courses between 8th and 10th grades, so a student who fails one or more has time to retake them or complete projects to show that they understand the subject, Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said.

The Republican governor proposed the concept last year, Eller said. Many other states are adopting Common Core standards and associated graduation tests as a way to create a uniform educational experience for American children and better prepare them for the world.

The Pennsylvania Common Core standards are designed to meld the toughest parts of the existing, 14-year-old standards with the toughest elements from a set of the uniform Common Core standards that take effect in Pennsylvania on July 1.

The rising criticism of the standards and tests in Pennsylvania reflects a debate that is ratcheting up, both nationally and in various states.

Some Democratic lawmakers and public school administrators question the wisdom of requiring a graduation test in poorer school districts that struggle to afford smaller class sizes, updated instructional materials, tutors and counselors.

“You’re going to hold students accountable when they may not have all the support and opportunities to learn that are necessary in order to pass these tests,” said Jim Buckheit of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “These are fairly rigorous, high-level tests and you have struggling school districts, like in Philadelphia, where the only people who will be in schools are the principals and teachers and no one else.”

Teachers’ unions worry what it will mean under the state’s new teacher evaluation standards when waves of schoolchildren begin failing the tests, as is expected. The new evaluation standards count student test performance, and the exams — called Keystone Exams — are being administered for the first time this year, although they won’t be tied to graduation success until the 2016-17 school year.

Conservatives have different concerns. Common Core standards, they say, are stamping out local control of education, because they were developed by non-government associations of governors and state education officials and are being encouraged by President Barack Obama.

Senate Democrats want the graduation tests stopped, saying state law does not authorize their use. The Legislature can stop the proposed standards if a joint resolution passes both the House and Senate and Corbett agrees.

But many lawmakers are just beginning to grasp the subject, and Clymer and Folmer aren’t sure what their next step will be.

“That is a very good question,” Clymer said.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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