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State to Ease School Standards: More Schools Would Meet Federal Guidelines

HARRISBURG -- Responding to pressure from local school districts, Pennsylvania education officials yesterday proposed easier attendance and graduation standards for schools, meaning that more schools could meet federal requirements this year.

"Schools are asking for flexibility to make the law more real-world," said state Department of Education spokesman Brian Christopher.

Under the new standards, elementary and middle schools must have at least 90 percent attendance rates and high schools must have 80 percent graduation rates, or they must show improvement from the past year.

Schools previously were required to have at least 95 percent in both categories.

Vicki Phillips, state education secretary, said yesterday the federal government has given preliminary approval for the changes, which would affect the so-called "adequate yearly progress" reports being released in August. The reports cover the 2003-04 school year.

Formal approval from the U.S. Department of Education is expected in a couple of weeks, she said.

"It's still a very high standard in comparison to other states," Phillips said.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to set standards that schools must meet or face sanctions. Pennsylvania requires schools to reach minimum levels in attendance and graduation rates, math and reading test scores and participation in those tests.

Dozens of schools that failed to meet the attendance or graduation standards last year would have complied under the new requirement, according to state education department officials. They did not have precise figures yesterday.

The attendance standard has prompted some schools this year to restrict approved absences, even for funerals or doctor's appointments, or take other steps to meet the requirement.

Deer Lakes Middle School officials sent letters to parents asking them to schedule vacations only in the summer, said Deer Lakes Superintendent Mark King.

The school met the standard this year after missing the mark in the previous year. King said it's difficult to convince parents that their children shouldn't take approved absences for medical appointments or family activities.

He said yesterday that he believes lowering the standard is a more reasonable way to help schools meet requirements.

James Lombardo, superintendent of the Upper St. Clair School District, said lowering the standards misses the point. The bigger issue is that the government is "dictating with a hammer" by punishing schools to force improvement, he said.

He opposes federal requirements that don't allow other factors to be taken into consideration. "It's still a black-and-white benchmark," he said.

In addition to lowering graduation and attendance requirements,

Phillips said the state also will give schools more leeway to meet all standards.

The state will assign schools, based on their size, a percentage-point "confidence" margin based, similar to margin of error in an opinion poll. The change means schools that just missed meeting requirements possibly would get pushed over the top, Phillips said.

"We believe this is a much fairer way to look at schools and districts," she said.

Parents should also expect redesigned Pennsylvania System of School Assessment reports in their mail in July. The new, colorful reports will make test results more "user friendly," said Carina Wong, the state's director of assessment and accountability.

A stoplight-colored chart will show whether students are meeting testing standards. The reports also include suggestions for parents to help their children improve math and reading skills.

The state paid a New York-based company nearly $10 million over five years to create the new reporting system.

The company also created a Web site for parents and educators to access test information, which will be put online in August.

(Nathan Crabbe is an intern for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.)

— Nathan Crabbe
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


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