Pa. state graduation test draws fire as unfair to kids in poorly funded schools

Beginning with the class of 2017, students in Pennsylvania will have to pass a state standardized test to earn a high school diploma.

The Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved the Keystone graduation test requirement Thursday in a 3-2 vote that broke down along Republican-Democrat party lines.

In the wake of the decision, some education advocates are calling the requirement an “unfunded mandate.”

“To make graduation depend on meeting state standards that require way more resources than are being given to Philadelphia students and many other students around the state is really putting the cart before the horse,” said Michael Churchill, staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

Churchill calls the requirement “a tragedy” that will only widen the equity gaps among the state’s students. Pennsylvania’s wealthier districts invest as much as $250,000 more per student over 12 years of education than districts in poorer areas.

“All students, if they’re going to be held to the same standards, deserve the same resources,” Churchill said. “I think there are many people who are utterly callous on what the impact [of the new graduation requirements] will be on students.”

At the hearing Thursday, acting State Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq told the IRRC panel that the new plan wouldn’t incur any additional costs, a claim Churchill derided as “ridiculous.”

“There’s going to be an enormous amount of investment in new curriculum and new books and in training of teachers in order to know how to help their students with what are admittedly more difficult and better standards,” he said.

Students who fail the test once will have the opportunity to re-take it. If they fail again, they can try to do a portfolio project to prove their merit.

The state Department of Education says it believes that every district in the state currently receives enough funding to adequately prepare all students for the state tests.

Some education advocates applauded the IRRC’s decision.

“The idea that we have to ‘wait, wait, wait’ until we have more funding: I don’t think that’s fair,” said Jonathan Cetel, executive director of PennCAN, one of the education-advocacy groups that lobbied for the measure. “I just don’t believe that until there’s more money, we have to put on hold high expectations for kids.”

Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children also advocated for the measure.

“Every school district in this commonwealth has been graduating some portion of its kids who have failed to show proficiency on standardized tests, and yet they’ve been getting diplomas,” said spokesman Mike Race. “We’re cheating those kids, we’re cheating their families and we’re cheating taxpayers.”

In 2012, one-third of Pennsylvania’s high school graduates (48,000 students) did not score at proficient or advanced levels on the 11th-grade PSSA test or the 12th-grade retake.

Numbers like these are the reason that Donna Cooper has long been an advocate for more definitive graduation requirements.

Before her current role as executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, Cooper served in former Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration as director of policy and planning. While there, she worked with researchers at Penn State University who found in a 2009 study that just 18 of the state’s 500 school districts had performance-based requirements for conferring diplomas.

Although she helped craft an earlier version of the provision that was just passed, she now says it’s wrong for the state to implement the change after making drastic cuts to the education budget. 

“We’re really putting districts in a very difficult position of saying every kid needs to do really well — which everybody should agree with — but taking the resources away that make it possible to happen.”

At the time Cooper was pushing for the change, the state was making $296 million in annual contributions above the basic education subsidy that were specifically set aside for kids who were struggling to stay on grade level. This funding stream vanished as the Corbett administration trimmed state spending during the recession.

While Philadelphia-based advocates reacted strongly on the equity issue, the effects of this decision will be felt across the state, including the Philadelphia suburbs.

According to recent reports from PCCY, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks counties have lost $43 million dollars in state education funding over the last three years. The poorest districts in these counties – Coatesville, Norristown, Bristol Bourough and Chester-Upland – have lost $12 million in that time.

In the most recent tests on record, 60,000 students in these suburban counties did not score at least proficient on the PSSA.

“These districts are in a position where they have to do more to help the kids demostrate proficiency,” said PCCY’s Cooper, “but they’re losing state investment.”

State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester) criticized the test decision sharply.

“Maybe the truth is we should stamp ‘failure’ on ourselves, the legislature,” he said. “Maybe the truth is the governor should stamp ‘failure’ on himself as well because we haven’t given the resources to ensure that every student can learn to the top of the curriculum.”

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