HARRISBURG — Proposed regulations supported by Gov. Tom Corbett to require tougher standards for students in order to graduate won the State Board of Education’s approval after a tense meeting Thursday.
The board voted 13-4 after two hours of public comment and debate among board members to approve what is being called the Pennsylvania Core Standards and its associated graduation component. At times, board members raised their voices or spoke to each other tersely, while Corbett’s acting secretary of education, Carolyn Dumaresq, attempted to rebut a long list of complaints that have been lodged against the concept in recent months.
The regulations would trigger perhaps the biggest changes in Pennsylvania school curricula in two decades, even as proponents sought to tamp down concerns over heavy-handed and centralized government intrusion into schools by stressing that each district would still control its curriculum and decide when to administer state-designed graduation tests called Keystone Exams.
Students in the class of 2017 would be the first to have to demonstrate their understanding of three subject areas — literature, biology and algebra — under the tougher academic standards to get a diploma. Students either must pass a test in each subject area, or successfully complete a project under the guidance of an instructor that shows that they understand it.
The proposed regulations still need approval from a separate, five-member regulatory panel appointed by lawmakers and the governor, the Intergovernmental Regulatory Review Commission, within 30 days.
Democratic lawmakers and an NAACP representative, Joan Duvall-Flynn, warned that children with difficult home lives or other hardships will suffer the most when they are unable to get a diploma. Corbett’s budget-balancing cuts to state education aid two years ago also became a point of contention as the two Democratic lawmakers on the board, Rep. James Roebuck and Sen. Andrew Dinniman, contended that poorer public school districts will need more state aid to help struggling students meet the tougher academic standards in order to graduate.
Dumaresq said the regulations would lift some prior regulations, such as senior projects, to free up the resources to help students achieve.
The Keystone Exams replaced the longstanding tests called the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or the PSSAs. Last year was the first year for the Keystone Exams, and even though passage was not required for graduation, students’ failing scores were already eliciting complaints from parents.
The Department of Education plans to release the aggregate test results later this month, a spokesman said.
Board of Education member Kirk Hallett, who runs a not-for-profit group that mentors troubled kids in Harrisburg, voted for the proposal after saying that he believed it would help school administrators identify which students need help and would give new value to a high school diploma in Pennsylvania.