Will Pa. graduation exams improve public education?

Cross-posted at Capitol Domes

Gov. Rendell has been pushing the idea of a statewide graduation requirement that all students pass a test (his latest gives one of four options) before graduating. Rendell’s plans are taking heat from both lawmakers and education interest groups.

Almost half (47 percent) of Pennsylvania’s 11th-grade students don’t meet proficiency standards on the PSSA in math, while 35 percent underachieve in reading. Yet, most of these students graduate anyway. The Commonwealth Foundation’s examination of student performance results — given that the state’s standards are far below the national standards — indicates that our public schools are worse than we thought they were.

So is a graduation exam the answer?

Some think that graduation rates are already too low in Pennsylvania (only 60 percent of black males graduate, according to one analysis). Others think too many graduate when they aren’t adequately prepared. Last year, 23 states (representing 64 percent of students) had some sort of graduation exam. And at least one study shows that graduation exams do not reduce graduation rates — though some question whether the exams are meaningful at all.

We don’t have any problem with high-stakes testing. After all, “teaching to the test” isn’t a problem, if a test adequately measures what children should have learned. But is the State Board of Education the proper entity to create the test?

On the one hand, we like the idea of local control, rather than standards set by a state bureaucracy. On the other hand, it is clear that local government isn’t always committed to excellence – see, for instance, the Pittsburgh School District’s decision to make 50 percent the lowest possible score on any test.

One thing is certain: Pennsylvania has a long way to go to improve the quality of our public education system, and as our recent experience has shown, simply spending more isn’t going to improve the quality of our schools.

Instead, Pennsylvania could look to Florida, which implemented high academic standards and tests, held schools and students accountable, ended social promotion (both before graduation and at earlier grades), and offered an array of school-choice options for families.

Will a graduation exam requirement improve our schools? If so, who should craft it? If not, what should the state do to improve its public schools?