UPDATED: In Harrisburg, a plan to stall, change Keystone exam

 (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

(Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Testing might be over for Pennsylvania students this year, but debate about how one of the state’s standardized tests should change is just heating up.

Last week, the state Senate’s Education Committee unanimously passed a bill that would delay when the Keystone Exams, a state-wide assessment of literature, algebra I and biology, would take effect as a requirement for high school graduation. 

Update: Monday, June 15th the Pennsylvania Senate passed the bill 49-0.

Lead sponsor of that bill Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, said even though the tests won’t be required to graduate until the Class of 2017 are seniors, the Keystones are already holding back students in his district, particularly those on a career and technical education track.

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“The Solanco School District [in Quarryville] is a good example,” said Smucker. “Forty-nine percent of their senior class typically attends the Career and Technology Center. The superintendent is telling me that quite a number of those students … would be held back for remediation.”

Students have two chances to pass each Keystone. If they fail both times, as nearly a quarter-million have, according to a recent study by Research for Action, the state requires schools administer remedial classes.

They then must complete a “project-based assessment” or PBA, a kind of computer-based quiz, in order to graduate. That costs districts time and money, for computers and staff.

Smucker called the PBAs “just unworkable,” and said that delaying testing will do more than give districts a longer runway. It also gives legislators more time to tinker with the requirements.

“One of the thoughts is you potentially broaden the option of tests available that would need to be passed,” said Smucker. That could mean giving students the option of passing another test, such as the National Assessment of Career and Technical Education (NACTE) or the SAT, instead.

“Ultimately we’re interested in ensuring that students are prepared for what they choose to do after graduation,” he said, whether starting a career or attending a four-year college.

Wolf open to delaying exams as graduation requirement

Speaking at the GradNation Community Summit in Philadelphia Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf pledged that the state would do its part to help local districts get students ready for career or college, by way of a “fair and equitable” funding from the state.

As for the Keystones, Wolf isn’t backing Smucker’s bill but said he is open to delaying the effects of the exam “as a means to the end of having rational conversation about accountability overall.”

“I think we ought to be flexible on the standards and keep thinking about that,” said Wolf. He also said the large numbers of students failing the tests “is a problem and we need to address that right now.”

Smucker’s isn’t the first bill to try to change or limit a statewide “graduation competency assessment,” as the nascent tests were first called under Gov. Ed Rendell. Legislators repeatedly pushed against that governor’s call for more accountability, and last year state Sen. Andy Dinneman championed a bill that would give districts more local control over how the exams are used.

Unrest over the Keystones rides a national trend, with stakeholders split over the importance and implementations of standardized tests. Supporters say the current bar for a high school diploma is too low. The number of students entering college only to take remedial coursework supports that assessment. For instance,  70 percent of students at the Community College of Philadelphia retake high school level classes.

Critics of the newer tests say that they eat up instruction time and are an indicator of relative wealth, not intelligence. The Research for Action report found that only about one in three “economically disadvantaged” students passed either the math or science Keystone exam on the first try.

Smucker said he expects the bill to delay the graduation requirement will pass the Senate in the next few weeks.

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