Majority of Philly students may need to use ‘alternative pathways’ to graduate, study finds

Starting with the class of 2023, Pennsylvania students must graduate through one of five new graduation pathways, two of which are based on state test scores.

Desks are spaced apart at an elementary school

Desks are spaced apart at an elementary school on March 19, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

If Pennsylvania’s new high school graduation standards had been in place in 2018 and 2019, just 35% of Philadelphia’s public school students would have been able to graduate based on their test scores alone, according to a recent report from the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC).

An additional 10% of students almost met the state’s new standards and needed to earn a basic score on just one additional state Keystone exam to be eligible.

“For future cohorts of district students, we estimate that over half will need significant support to meet Keystone pathway requirements or will need to successfully pursue alternative graduation pathways in order to graduate,” according to the report.

Sean Vannata, a research analyst who worked on the report, said he hopes it serves as a call to action to make sure students have what they need to graduate through the state’s alternative pathways, which rely on alternate test scores or work experience and training.

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“The alternative pathways are a little more complex and have different criteria for each of them. So it’s really important for us to ensure that the pathways are well defined and accessible for all students,” he said.

The new standards take effect this school year starting with the class of 2023.

Tawanna Jones-Morrison, a former Philadelphia teacher who consulted on the report, said one of her biggest concerns when it comes to the new requirements is that students and parents simply won’t know about them.

“I think it’ll be a shock to a lot of families,” she said.

The School District of Philadelphia sent a letter to families this week outlining the new requirements and announcing a series of upcoming information sessions.

Chief of Schools Evelyn Nuñez said the district decided to wait to communicate with parents until now because it wanted to wait until requirements were clear at the state level.

“We knew that this was coming and we wanted to make sure that we had all the answers,” Nuñez said. “We know that parents are going to have many questions and we wanted to be prepared to answer.”

Schools are expected to reach out to the families of high school seniors in the next few weeks, Nuñez said, and staff will meet with them one-on-one to make sure they’re on track to graduate.

Five new pathways to graduation

Starting with the class of 2023, Pennsylvania students must graduate through one of five new pathways, two of which are based on a student’s performance on required end-of-course exams known as “the Keystones.”

The Keystone pathways are arguably more straightforward and less labor-intensive than the state’s alternatives.

Keystone proficiency

Students must be proficient, with a score of 1,500 or higher, on all three Keystone Exams, in biology, algebra, and literature. Exams are scored out of 1,800 points.

Keystone composite

If a student doesn’t score high enough on all three exams, they can still graduate if one score is proficient or higher, all three scores total 4,452, and there are no scores below basic (1,439 to 1,460, depending on the subject).

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Students who completed all three courses, but didn’t sit for one of the corresponding exams due to the pandemic, can graduate with a two-score composite of at least 2,939. 

The other three pathways rely on industry-based credentials, non-Keystone assessments, and what the state refers to as “evidence,” that a student is ready for college or a career.

In all three cases, students must also meet local grade-based requirements for the classes associated with the Keystone Exams in which they scored too low.

Career and technical education concentrator

This pathway is meant for students enrolled in career and technical education (CTE) programs. Students are eligible to graduate if they attain an industry-based competency certification related to their program of study.

Students who haven’t earned their certification can still graduate if they prove they’re on track based on “benchmark assessments, course grades, and other factors.”

Alternative assessment

Students can graduate if they receive a high enough score on one of the following approved exams: ACT, SAT, PSAT/NMSQT, ACT WorkKeys National Career Readiness Certificate, or the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. AP or IB test scores and completed college courses can also be used to substitute for individual Keystone exams in the same subjects.

Students can also graduate if they complete a registered pre-apprenticeship program or if they’ve been accepted to an accredited four-year nonprofit college or university.


The state’s evidence-based approach is a lot like the document matrix you get when you apply for a driver’s license. A student must provide three pieces of evidence from a list of more than 10 options divided into two sections. At least one piece must come from section one, and the other two from section two.

Are schools ready for the new graduation requirements?

Sherri Smith, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), said districts should be prepared to graduate students through the new pathways.

“All of us in schools recognized that this was something that was going to be coming,” said Smith, who until this year was a deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The state first introduced Keystone exams during the 2012-13 school year, with plans to start using them as so-called exit exams starting with the class of 2017. Students were required to pass all three exams in order to graduate unless they had a learning disability.

While exit exams were common among states in the early 2000s, by the time Pennsylvania’s policy was approved, they had begun to fall out of favor and were seen as unnecessary barriers.

Some educators, researchers, and politicians immediately pushed back against the policy, noting its lack of accommodations for English learners and the crisis that large urban districts with low test scores would likely face.

In response, the state Legislature filed a series of moratoriums that prevented the standards from taking effect and required the state Department of Education to offer improvements.

Acknowledging that “postsecondary success looks different for different students,” the department suggested adding several non-test-based graduation options, forming the basis for the alternative pathways that are in place today.

“I think they tried to think in every avenue of the different types of students and how they learn,” Smith said.

The updated requirements, which were codified in 2018, were supposed to take effect in 2021 but were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While Smith believes most schools are prepared to help students navigate the process, she said that doesn’t mean there still won’t be challenges.

“Number one is the organization of it all,” she said. “Tracking the students and their different pathways is a pretty heavy lift.”

There’s a lot to keep track of, especially if students start on one path and later switch to another.

To help districts with this, the state Department of Education said it’s offering districts access to special software to track student progress.

Officials in the department declined to be interviewed, but said in a written response that the department has been helping schools prepare for the new graduation requirements since 2019. It’s held a series of webinars, created an online toolkit, and hosts frequent “office hours” so school leaders can ask questions.

(Pennsylvania Department of Education)

Smith said one of the biggest things potentially standing in the way of schools’ ability to meet the new requirements is staffing, since many Pennsylvania schools are understaffed.

“That is a concern of all of us right now,” she said, adding that schools are already strained when it comes to meeting pre-existing requirements, not to mention implementing a brand-new graduation system.

“It certainly is, I think, ambitious and difficult for our schools to put into place,” she said.

Predicting the future from the past

Philadelphia’s four-year graduation rate was 72% in 2019. Three out of four students graduated on time during the 2020-21 school year, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic and the last year for which data is available.

PERC researchers looked at old Keystone scores to determine how future students might perform.

Since the historic data comes from a pre-pandemic, low-stakes testing environment, it can’t necessarily predict what Keystone exam performance will look like in the future, said Vannata, the researcher with PERC.

He said, for one thing, now that the tests are tied to graduation, students and teachers may take them more seriously and scores could improve as a result.

Still, he said the scores, and the resulting report, provide an important baseline as the city and state enter a new high-stakes testing environment.

Lack of public understanding and counselors

Jones-Morrison, the veteran teacher, said she still has a lot of questions when it comes to the new graduation pathways — and so do families.

“Which one do I pick? How do I pick? When do I pick?” Jones-Morrison said.

For example, should students pick their graduation pathway in the ninth grade?

“And then, what if I realize it’s not working for me and now I’m in 11th grade?”

With all the questions swirling in students’ and parents’ heads, Jones-Morrison, who currently runs the nonprofit We Reign, said families will need to rely on school counselors and outside organizations like hers, more now than ever.

“I just think there’s a lot of nuance that I think will create a whole lot of lack of understanding,” she said.

Nicole Wyglendowski, a special education teacher in North Philadelphia, said in an op-ed last spring that she thinks schools will need more counselors to make sure the new graduation requirements are met.

The district’s student-to-counselor rate this year is 269-to-1, according to the district. That’s slightly higher than the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA) recommended rate of 250-to-1, but far better than the national average, which was 415-to-1 during the 2020-21 school year.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington said earlier this month that while students want and need more counselors, he doesn’t have the budget to hire them.

But Ali Robinson-Rogers, the district’s director of postsecondary readiness, said counselors aren’t the only people who will be tasked with helping students navigate the new pathways.

“I think it is collective work and responsibility because no one person can get each student where they need to be,” she said.

Her advice to schools is to create a team of people that includes counselors, classroom teachers, and the people who work with young people on career readiness outside of school hours.

The district provided professional development on the new standards to school-based staff beyond counselors, Robinson-Rogers said.

Like the state, the district has made its own tool kit for schools to use, she said, and added the ability to track student progress along the five graduation pathways to its own student information system.

The district will use its own tracking system instead of the state’s, since theirs is probably more advanced, Robinson-Rogers said.

With the majority of students likely to graduate through the non-Keystone pathways, Robinson-Rogers said the district and its many partners are working together to make sure students have access to the work experience and training they’ll need to graduate.

“I’m excited that the city is rallying around this,” she said.

Will graduation rates go down?

Smith, with the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said she doesn’t think the state’s graduation rates are guaranteed to go down just because of the new requirements.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains.

She expects many schools will request graduation waivers for students this year, possibly exceeding the state’s limit, which is 5% of students in a graduating class.

“Everybody needs to understand that things aren’t going to go perfect in the first year,” she said.

Jones-Morrison is less optimistic.

“Sadly, I would say probably for the first couple of years, we will see a dip,” she said.

To her, it feels unfair to implement the standards at a time when students and teachers are still recovering from the pandemic.

“It just seems out of step with what the realities are,” she said. “It’s not that children aren’t working hard, and it’s not that teachers aren’t working hard. I think that there are a lot of gaps and things that went missing in terms of instruction.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the Keystone composite two-score option.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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