By Chris Comisac
HARRISBURG (Oct. 16) – While lawmakers have been unable to eliminate Pennsylvania’s Keystone Exams, they’ve done a fairly effective job during the last few years at limiting their importance.
And while that hasn’t saved the state’s taxpayers the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to develop tests in Algebra, Biology and Literature – which at one time were graduation requirements until lawmakers imposed a temporary moratorium on that requirement – it has, according to critics of the tests, helped to improve Pennsylvania’s educational system.
Yet another piece of that effort is on its way to the governor after the state Senate unanimously voted on Monday to approve changes made to Senate Bill 1095 by the state House of Representatives late last month.
The legislation seeks to offer students who do not score proficient on Keystone Exams alterative pathways to demonstrate their readiness to graduate from high school.
Bill sponsor Sen. Tom McGarrigle, R-Delaware, emphasized that passage of the measure continues the important work of establishing a more thoughtful approach to high-stakes testing and graduation requirements.
“The reason I introduced this measure was to return graduation requirements to their original intent,” said McGarrigle prior to the Senate’s final vote. “The purpose of graduation requirements is to ensure students can show proficiency in the knowledge and skills relevant to their career pathways.
“Keystone Exams shouldn’t be the sole factor in determining graduation because they do not measure the range of aptitude needed to be successful in college or the workplace.”
Shortly following the Senate’s vote, Gov. Tom Wolf indicated he would sign SB1095 into law.
“Preparation for 21st century success cannot be measured just by performance on high stakes tests,” Wolf said in a statement. “In an economy which demands multiple skill sets and includes varying educational pathways to good-paying jobs, students should have multiple ways to demonstrate that they are college and career ready. I will be proud to sign this bill which is in line with the recommendations of my Department of Education and builds off of the actions I have already taken to reduce our reliance on high stakes testing, including reducing testing time for the PSSAs for students in 3rd through 8th grade.”
Education groups also hailed the passage of SB1095.
“Senate Bill 1095 recognizes that our students are better than a test,” said Pennsylvania School Boards Association chief executive officer Nathan G. Mains in a statement. “This bill listens and responds to the voices of concerned students, parents, teachers, school board members, administrators and others who believe that Keystone Exam scores should not be used for high-stakes motivations nor become a barrier as a sole measure for being eligible to graduate. The legislation provides flexibility by allowing alternative valid and rigorous benchmarks for students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills necessary to be college and career ready.”
And last week, when the state House of Representatives gave its final approval to the bill, Dolores McCracken, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association – the state’s largest teachers union – said of SB1095: “No single standardized test should overshadow a student’s academic record of accomplishments. Students should be able to draw on multiple academic achievements to demonstrate their readiness to graduate high school. We commend Sen. McGarrigle for rejecting a one-size-fits-all approach to something as important as a high school diploma. His bill will provide graduating students with multiple pathways to success.”
Under the legislation, students would be given four pathways to meet their graduation requirements.
The first option would be to meet or exceed a composite score – recommended by the Secretary of Education and approved by the State Board of Education no later than July 30, 2019 – across Keystone exams in algebra I, biology, and literature.
Option Two would be to meet or exceed local grade requirements in subjects tested by the Keystone exams as well as obtain certain performance level (set either by the state Education Secretary, the State Board of Education, or specified in SB1095) or successfully completed of one of the following: an approved alternative assessment; a subject-specific, advanced placement test; the ACT Workkeys Assessment; an international baccalaureate diploma program; a college-level course in an academic content area associated with each Keystone Exam on which the student did not achieve at least a proficient score; a pre-apprenticeship program; acceptance to an accredited four-year nonprofit institution of higher education and evidence of the ability to enroll in college-level, credit-bearing coursework; or acceptance to an accredited four-year nonprofit institution of higher education and evidence of the ability to enroll in college-level, credit-bearing coursework.
Another option, as already provided for in law, allows a vocational education student that fails to achieve proficiency on a Keystone Exam to be deemed proficient for graduation purposes if the student completes locally-established, grade-based requirements for academic content areas associated with each exam. Additionally, that student must demonstrate proficiency on an assessment in his or her area of study, which could be by attaining an industry-based competency certification related to the student’s program of study, or by demonstrating a high likelihood of success on an approved industry-based competency assessment or readiness for continued meaningful engagement in the student’s program of study as demonstrated by performance on benchmark assessments, course grades, and other factors consistent with the student’s goals and career plan.
The last option allows a student to meet or exceed locally-established, grade-based requirements in the associated academic content areas of the Keystone Exams, and present at least three pieces of evidence from the student's career portfolio, which is required for federal accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act. That evidence could include, but not be limited to, obtaining a certain score or performance level (set by the state Education Secretary and the State Board of Education) on any one of several standardized tests listed in SB1095; successful completion of a college level course; acceptance to an accredited four-year, nonprofit institution of higher education and evidence of the ability to enroll in college-level, credit-bearing coursework; satisfactory completion of a service learning project that received advance approval for use as a rigorous and objective piece of evidence by a chief school administrator or their designee; a letter guaranteeing full-time employment; a certificate of successful completion of an internship, externship, or cooperative education program; or satisfactory compliance with the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s core courses for college-bound student athletes with a minimum grade point average of 2.0 or the equivalent on an alternative grading scale.