State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Senate Democrats raise questions about exams required for graduation

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | May 13, 2013 10:26 PM
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Requirements that would require Pennsylvania students to pass new statewide standardized tests in order to graduate are poised for approval. But state Senate Democrats aren't happy about it.

Tests called the PSSAs are being replaced by the new Keystone Exams. They measure student mastery of algebra one, biology, and English literature. Starting with this year's eighth graders, students will be required to pass the tests to graduate.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Andy Dinniman (R-Chester), said lawmakers had an understanding with the administration sketching out what the Keystone Exams would look like, and the new policy positioned for the governor's final approval violates that agreement.

"Certainly something as serious as requiring every student to have an exam should have legislative review," he said.

At a press conference Monday, Dinniman said the understanding was that the tests would be voluntary and only make up a third of a student's grade in each corresponding course. But Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said it's a distinction without a difference.

"If you fail the Keystone Exam, you're potentially failing the course of which that exam is being used for," Eller said.

Students, beginning with the class of 2017, get two chances to pass each exam. If they fail on the second try, they can be assessed with a project based on the course. The new education standards, which include the exams, are the subject of hearings in the House and Senate education committees this week.

Eller said the regulatory review process to create and adopt the new standards began nearly two years ago. The State Board of Education adopted the final form of regulations governing these exams and the educational standards (called Common Core) on which they're based in March 2013.

At this point, governor's office will review a fiscal analysis of the new policy, Eller said. Once that's finished, final proposal for the Keystone Exams will be delivered to the House and Senate education committees and to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. It will then be reviewed by the state Attorney General.

Eller says state regulators have the final say on whether the Keystone Exams take effect or not, but it's not entirely true that the Legislature has no input. The final proposal of the exams policy will be sent to House and Senate education panels.

"They can take formal action if they choose to," he said. "If they don't take any action at all, it's considered approved."

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