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Better school yardsticks

January 19, 1999

To the relief of many citizens, Pennsylvania officials have traded the wishy-washy wording of "outcomes-based education" for a new set of precise educational standards that students should be able to meet at certain grade levels.

Some see it as as an erosion of local control of education, but the previous standards were so vague it's hard to imagine how anyone could determine whether students were meeting them.

Consider this: Under outcomes-based education, or OBE, by a time high-school students were ready to graduate, they should be able to "compute, measure and estimate to solve theoretical and practical problems, using appropriate tools, including modern technology such as calculators and computers."

Under the new standards, by grade 11 a student should be able to "use operations such as reciprocal, absolute values, finding roots and logarithms."

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It sounds complicated, but this system builds on itself, grade by grade. A third grader, for example, must count to 10,000 using whole numbers, while a fifth grader must be able to apply integers (natural numbers) to everyday problem solving.

The whole system is linked to state assessment testing that is done in third, fifth, eighth and eleventh grades, and with a state graduation test that is still being developed.

Beginning in 2001, Pennsylvania juniors will take a state-run proficiency test, and if they pass, they will get a special seal on their high-school diplomas. Those who fail the first time get another shot as seniors. The local school district will still determine requirements for graduation, but without the state seal, the diploma won't mean as much when the graduate seeks employment.

At this point, the new program seems like the perfect compromise between those want some guarantee that Pennsylvania students will acquire certain knowledge before they graduate, and those who want to retain local control over the educational process. It still needs work - two shots at passing the state graduation test aren't enough - but compared to OBE, it's major progress.

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