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The right way to test

January 05, 1999

Four years from now, it won't be enough for Pennsylvania high school students to pass all their required courses. To get a special state seal on their high school diplomas, they'll have to pass a special test to prove they've met state standards for reading, writing and math. Sound like a simple idea? Read on.

The test will affect those Pennsylvania students who are now in the seventh grade, but the exam hasn't been written yet. Who writes it and what material will be covered is already stirring up controversy in local school districts.

On one side are those who believe that deciding the requirements for graduation is a local matter. On the other are those who argue that a Pennsylvania diploma will mean more, to colleges and and potential employers, if students have to demonstrate competency on a standardized test.

But to get to that point, state education officials must first answer several other questions, including: What happens to students who don't pass the test?

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The plan now is to give students with a passing grade a special state seal on their diploma; those who don't pass would get a "certificate of attendance" instead.

How many shots at the test would students get? The current plan is to give eleventh graders the test in 2003, then allow those who don't pass it another try in their senior year. If they flunk then, they wouldn't get another chance.

That seems like a bad idea to us, and possibly illegal, given federal laws that require that every student receive an adequate education. By implication, that would seem to mandate remedial education for those who need it. In Tennessee, which has had competency testing since 1990, the Associated Press reports that students who flunk the test can re-take it repeatedly until they pass.

We also believe that, despite local districts' desire to write their own, there should be a single state test, developed with local input, to be sure. A single test would avoid the chaos over several hundred local versions, and spare taxpayers the cost of a state review of every one of them.

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