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Education Chief Confirmed; Defends Reduced Standards

NOTE: The Changes aren't insignificant.

At a Pennsylvania state Senate hearing on his confirmation yesterday, education secretary nominee Francis Barnes defended his department's decision to lower some No Child Left Behind accountability standards earlier this year.

The committee voted unanimously to recommend Barnes' confirmation to the full Senate, which unanimously confirmed him later in the day.

During the hearing, state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin) asked Barnes about an opinion piece in yesterday's Inquirer by state board of education member David Warren Saxe.

The article criticized changes to the state accountability system that Barnes' predecessor, Viki Phillips, requested and received from the federal Department of Education.

"I do believe we need to have standards and benchmarks as high as we possibly can, because the highest possible achievement for Pennsylvania's kids is what we should be shooting for," Piccola said.

An Inquirer analysis published last month found that the changes made it appear that the state's public schools made more progress than they really had toward meeting the standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The changes the education department made to the state accountability system allowed schools with scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) that were as much as 5 percent lower than last year to still meet the accountability standard. And it allowed Safe Harbor schools - those that did not meet the accountability standard but showed significant gains - to achieve the accountability standard with smaller improvements than last year.

The changes also lowered the acceptable rate for graduation: from 95 percent or improvement from the previous year to 80 percent or improvement. They also reduced the acceptable school attendance rate from 95 percent or improvement to 90 percent or improvement.

Changes were also made in calculating the test participation rate for students, another accountability standard, and in the rules for how English-language learners were to be included or excluded from accountability calculations.

With the changes, 81 percent of the state's schools met the state's accountability standards this year. Without them, the Inquireranalysis found, only 61 percent of the schools would have made the grade. That would have been a lower percentage than the 63 percent of schools that had met the standards the year before.

Barnes, superintendent of the Palisades School District in upper Bucks County until his nomination for the state post, said that "the adjustment seemed to be reasonable and put us in alignment" with other state accountability systems. He said it struck the right "balance between rigor and reasonableness."

He noted that next year the passing scores on the PSSA will be raised substantially.

"The clear challenge is for us to continue our success rate with the substantial increases" in the math and reading standards that will take place, he said.


— Dan Hardy
Philadelphia Inquirer


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