EPLC Education Notebook

Friday, February 20, 2009

    Content in this edition:
    EPLC News
    Pennsylvania Policymakers
    - State Senate
    - State House
    - State Board of Education
    U.S. Department of Education

    The EPLC Education Notebook (current and past editions) also is available by visiting the EPLC website at www.eplc.org/ednotebook.html.



    Registrations are being accepted for EPLC’s 2009 School Board Candidate Workshops in Harrisburg (Saturday, February 21) and the Lehigh Valley (Saturday, March 7).  Workshops previously were held in Indiana, Montgomery County and Allegheny County.  Conducted in partnership with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, the Workshops are intended for those considering a run for school board (incumbents and non-incumbents), anyone interested in helping others run for school board, or those who just want to know more about the work of school boards and school directors.  Click here for details and to register online.



    State Senate

    On Thursday, the Senate Education Committee held a public hearing on the Department of Education’s proposal to develop standard final exams for high school students.  Members of the General Assembly and the state’s education community remain divided over the Graduation Competency Assessments (GCAs) first proposed in regulation by the State Board of Education last year.

    Senator Jane Orie (R-Allegheny) has introduced Senate Bill 281 to prohibit the implementation and development of any statewide requirements for high school graduation unless they are sanctioned and funded by the General Assembly.  Orie scolded the Department of Education (PDE) for continuing to solicit a contract to develop GCAs despite a law enacted last year that placed a one-year moratorium on implementing regulations to establish GCAs.  However, Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak said PDE is acting within the purview of the law.  Zahorchak said the current state budget included funds for PDE to develop standard final exams to be used on a voluntary basis and to develop model curriculum and the tools to identify where students need extra help.

    Current state regulations require students to demonstrate academic proficiency for high school graduation either by passing the state’s 11th grade PSSA reading and math exams or by passing an equivalent local assessment.  However, almost 44% of Pennsylvania high school seniors received diplomas despite failing the 11th grade PSSA, leading PDE to conclude that some local exams do not assess the same level of academic rigor as the PSSA.  (A Penn State study of local exams is expected by the end of the month.)  PDE cited further concern with the level of remediation needed when students enter higher education not prepared for college-level work.  To ensure all students graduate college and career ready, the Department advanced a proposal to create standard end of course exams (GCAs) and to let districts choose to use either GCAs, PSSAs, advanced placement or international baccalaureate exams, or local assessments validated as equivalent to the PSSA for high school graduation purposes.

    Senate Education Committee Chair Jeff Piccola (R-Dauphin) said he supports the GCA concept and that greater accountability is needed to ensure districts are fulfilling students’ academic needs.  He has introduced Senate Bill 307 as an alternative to GCA’s, which would use the PSSA to gauge students’ competency over the course of their education.

    Amy Morton, Executive Director of the Capital Area Intermediate Unit, spoke in support of the GCAs with certain conditions.  Morton said GCAs would appropriately test knowledge at the end of a course when students are more likely to demonstrate actual achievement in the content area and could replace the current 11th grade PSSA as a more fair assessment.  However, Morton said the system also needs to recognize the value of vocational education trade competency assessments as measures of students being career ready and that it is essential for the state to consider differentiated high school diplomas.

    Kim Geyer, of Mars Research and Retrieval Services, spoke out against GCAs, citing a report from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that says exit exams “rarely translate into readiness to succeed beyond high school” and noting that a supporter of exit exams nationally – Achieve, Inc. – is now adjusting its position on the issue.

    Tim Allwein, Assistant Executive Director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, told the Committee a plan to implement GCAs must maintain a viable local assessment option.  PSBA considers the local assessment option included in the initial GCA proposal too costly and complicated for districts to practically utilize.  Allwein also asked legislators to not allow another state test to be mandated and expressed school districts’ concerns over the costs to comply with the proposal.

    The Committee also heard from representatives of teachers, who oppose GCAs and said funds can be better spent on programs proven to increase student achievement.  Senators also heard from representatives of the business community and children’s advocates who support GCAs, as well as representatives of special needs students and a community college president who have concerns with the proposal.  Click here for a copy of the testimony presented to the Committee.

    State House

    On Tuesday, representatives of the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) and the State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) responded to questions from lawmakers as part of the annual budgets hearings held by the House Appropriations Committee to consider the Governor’s state spending plan for 2009-2010.  The states’ pension systems reported on their losses and plans to weather the current fiscal crisis.  Legislators focused their questions and comments on the projected spike in the PSERS contribution rate in 2012.  According to PSERS, the rate could exceed 28 percent in FY 2012-13; the current employer contribution rate is 7.13%.  To read the Office of the Budget’s special report, released in June 2008, on eliminating the rate spike, click here.

    State Board of Education

    The Pennsylvania State Board of Education continued its statewide hearings on high school reform with a public meeting in Youngwood on Thursday.  Click here for information on upcoming hearings scheduled in Milton (Feb. 27), Grove City (March 3) and Lock Haven (March 6).



    President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act this week, which includes more than $100 billion for education, college grants and tuition tax credits and billions more for school modernization.  According to preliminary estimates released by the U.S. Department of Education, Pennsylvania is slated over two years to receive $398.775 million in Title I grants to local education agencies, $427.178 million in IDEA Part B grants to states, and $878.787 million in Federal Pell Grants.  Click here for more information on education stimulus funding on the U.S. Department of Education website.



    Eileen Flinn has been named Executive Director of the Senate Education Committee for Democratic Senator Andrew Dinniman.  Flinn most recently worked with the Portland, Oregon School District and previously held positions with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Governor’s Office of General Counsel.



    Next week…

  • The House Appropriations Committee holds state budget hearings Tuesday for the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.

  • The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center hosts its Annual Budget Summit in Harrisburg on Thursday.

  • The Pennsylvania State Board of Education holds a public hearing on high school reform in Milton on Friday.

  • The National Conference of State Legislatures hosts its National Education Seminar on Feb. 27-March 1 in Scottsdale, AZ.

  • The National Association of Secondary School Principals hosts its Annual Convention on Feb. 27-March 1 in San Diego, CA.

  • For information on these and other upcoming events, see www.eplc.org/calendar.html.

EPLC Education Notebook is published by The Education Policy and Leadership Center (EPLC). Permission to reprint or electronically redistribute the Notebook in whole or in part is granted provided attribution to EPLC is provided.

The Education Policy and Leadership Center is an independent, non-partisan and not-for-profit organization. The Mission of EPLC is to encourage and support the enactment and implementation of effective state-level education policies in order to improve student learning in grades P-12, increase the effective operation of schools, and enhance educational opportunities for citizens of all ages.

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