The U.S. dollar isn’t the only piece of paper plagued by inflation. While the Federal Reserve drives down the value of the greenback, low academic standards in Pennsylvania are decreasing the value of a high school diploma.
The standards for "achievement" in our public schools are poor benchmarks for collegiate aptitude. About one-third of freshmen in Pennsylvania’s state and community colleges require remedial classes. In the 2007-08 school year, only about half of 11th grade students were deemed proficient in reading and math—yet most of those students graduated a year later anyway. Basic reading and math skills are no longer necessary for graduation.
Those results are even more startling when one considers that the PSSA tests have a low standard for achievement. In fact, PSSA results inflate the number of students "proficient" by 80% compared with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which defines proficiency as "at grade level performance." By this standard, far more students—as many as 95% in the worst schools in the state—are promoted without being prepared for the next grade level!
Despite Governor Rendell’s praise of the PSSA, he introduced a plan to replace it with Graduation Competency Assessments (GCAs). Under the plan (currently known as the Keystone Exams), high school students would have to pass a state-issued or state-approved test in order to graduate. Although this plan has not been approved by the legislature, the Rendell Administration has already awarded a $201 million contract to a Minnesota-based education company to create the exams.
Like many contracts awarded by the Governor, this one also raises suspicions. Top officials from the education company donated $22,000 to Rendell’s campaign. That’s right, individuals from Minnesota shelled out big bucks for a gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania—and the company those individuals work for was awarded a multi-million dollar contract by the candidate their money supported. The price tag for writing a test may also seem steep given teachers write numerous tests as part of their job.
Critics question more than the ethics behind the Governor’s proposed GCAs. The high cost of implementing the Keystone Exams is also a major concern. At a time when Pennsylvania is facing a massive budget deficit, it is difficult to justify spending millions to create yet another state test.
The solution to Pennsylvania’s poor academic achievement lies in dealing with low performance throughout the educational system. Rather than simply testing students at the end of their career, Pennsylvania should end social promotion and ensure students learn the basics at earlier stages.
A good case study is the state of Florida, where an early detection system has been in effect since 1998. In Florida, students are tested on a yearly basis in grades 3-11. The state requires students to meet standards for promotion from grades 3 and 10, and some school districts use the tests as a requirement for promotion from other grades. The tests serve as a vital tool in measuring students’ achievement and recognizing those who need remedial assistance.
The other critical component of the Florida model is school choice. Students in failing schools are given a lifeline to attend successful schools. This program—giving both alternatives to families and incentives for schools to attract students—has led to improvement both for students and for troubled schools.
In Pennsylvania, while many schools are failing, students have few or no options. Yet the school choice options that exist—charter schools, cyber schools, and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit—serve a growing number of students, and continue to have long waiting lists.
While higher standards and an end to social promotion will help to improve the quality of education in Pennsylvania, real accountability comes when parents choose the best school for their children. The inability of Pennsylvania’s public schools to teach many students basic skills points to the necessity of school choice. Competition will provide schools with incentives to achieve higher standards. Implementing choice in the education system is the key to raising standards and bringing value back to high school diplomas. When parents choose, students win.
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Kara Luzik is a research fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), a public policy education and research institute located in Harrisburg.
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