HARRISBURG -- Strong opposition has stalled a proposal that would require Pennsylvania high school students to pass a battery of tests before they can graduate.
Instead, Gov. Ed Rendell's administration and state lawmakers settled on a compromise that would make the tests optional for now.
Under a public school code bill that passed the Legislature last week, the State Board of Education's effort to create new rules establishing 10 subject-specific final exams for graduating high school students would be halted for the 2008-09 school year.
On Tuesday, Rendell is expected to sign the bill, passed along with the state budget, which also outlines how an unprecedented $274 million state subsidy increase will be distributed among the state's 501 school districts.
The budget calls for increasing annual spending on state assessment tests by more than 70 percent to $54 million. Some of the money will go toward developing graduation tests that school districts can use voluntarily beginning in the 2009-10 school year, Education Department spokeswoman Sheila Ballen said Monday.
Making the tests voluntary was important to lawmakers, given the opposition they were hearing from their constituents, said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi.
"If there is a school district that feels they're at the point... in their performance that an additional test would have a beneficial effect, they could act on that conclusion," said Pileggi, R-Delaware.
Rendell had originally requested $15 million for developing the tests, but Ballen could not specify how much the department planned to spend on them in the 2008-09 school year. The additional assessment money would also be spent on a K-12 "model curriculum" for the subjects to be tested and on diagnostic tools for teachers to monitor their students' academic progress, she said.
Supporters of the proposed regulations say they would ensure all students meet the state's academic standards and are ready for college and careers. To graduate, students would have to pass six tests covering English, math, science, and social studies, starting with the class of 2014.
School districts would have to provide remedial help to failing students and give them opportunities to retake the tests. They could use existing Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams to comply with the regulations or substitute their own local exams, but only if those tests are approved by companies that evaluate educational tests.
Educators, school boards and lawmakers who opposed the tests argue that the regulations would undermine local school boards' policymaking authority and discourage academically struggling students from staying in school.
"It seems to me that the goal... is to make sure we don't deny too many people a diploma, so we substantially harm their future," said Stinson Stroup, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
The House and Senate introduced bills this year that would effectively block the regulations by giving the General Assembly greater authority over adopting graduation requirements.
Rep. James Roebuck, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the compromise in the school code bill would allow more time for policymakers to evaluate how the tests would work before making them a requirement.
"Clearly, there was a very substantial need for further discussion," said Roebuck, D-Philadelphia.
The board's proposal is undergoing the first round of a lengthy state regulatory review. The board has a June 2010 deadline to submit final regulations for consideration.
Board Chairman Karl Girton said that although he was disappointed that bill would stall the regulatory process, "it gives us some time to help people understand why what we've proposed is important."
"I don't think this is a death knell," he said.