Thursday, October 8, 2009

Keystone Exams 2.0 Update

There is currently some wrangling on the Keystone Exams going on in the PA Legislature. There is a bill out there that was co-sponsored by a majority of legislators that would have required legislature approval for Pennsylvania Department of Education and Governor Rendell to adopt the Keystone Exams. That fight is apparently ongoing and I will update when I find out more. The introduction of the resolution of PA House Resolution 456 is below:

A Concurrent Resolution urging Governor Edward G. Rendell to cease funding of implementation of high school graduation requirements until the General Assembly establishes a policy by legislation, requesting the Governor to impress upon his cabinet officials involved in educational policy to regard the desires of the citizens of Pennsylvania, recognizing that actions by public officials that impede the democratic process will be considered as actions in disregard of the officials' assigned constitutional and statutory duties and in disregard of the honor which their constituents have called these officials to uphold, and asking the Independent Regulatory Review Commission to consider whether proposed high school graduation requirements have been given due consideration by the General Assembly and by the Governor, in accordance with the Regulatory Review Act, before a decision is made on final-form regulation of high school graduation requirements.
Full text of the bill can be found here. State Representative Matt Smith is a co-signer of the above resolution. In fact, 161 of the 200 members of the House have supported the bill.

Today I came across this article from the Times-Herald that talks about some of the pros and cons of the current Keystone Exam proposal as well as many of the parties involved in the discussion:

Times Herald Staff

WORCESTER — Earning passing grades is not necessarily assurance of obtaining a high school diploma for many U.S. public school students anymore.

A growing number of states now require high school students to pass an exit exam before that diploma is handed over,

With opposition from many education officials, Pennsylvania’s own version of the assessment, the Keystone Exams, has overcome several stumbling blocks. But the test is no less controversial as it awaits review by Senate and House committees and final approval by the IRRC next month.

The State Board of Education voted earlier this year (14-2) to adopt the final regulation for implementing the new statewide standard for the 2010-2011 school year. Schools will have the choice of putting the Keystone Exams into service or local assessments that conform to Pennsylvania standards that are validated by the state.

Many local educators have concerns with the Keystone Exams, including Methacton Area School District superintendent Timothy Quinn, who worries that having the test count for one-third of a student’s final grade puts too much emphasis on it and takes away from other course work students do.

“In its current form, the exams for 12th graders will constitute 33 percent of their final course grades,” Quinn noted. “Any student falling below basics on that exam will get a zero on that test. If they get a zero on 33 percent of their test, you can imagine what that’s going to do. We can have students failing because they’re bad test takers or just having a bad day, or any other reason.

“A student could get 100 percent on all other tests, but if I get a zero on the Keystone test, I now get a 66 for the course and have now failed it. So that’s pretty serious stuff. Mathematically, it lowers the grade point average of a student who does well. They can do all sorts of things that are showing they’re good students, but now one test could erode their grade point average and really cause our students harm whether it be getting into college or something else. So that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

While Quinn said he supports holding students to higher academic standards, he doesn’t support the Keystone program in its current form.

“There has been serious discussion with educators who are coming out in droves against it and there are a lot more conversations that have to occur about the ramifications and consequences,” he said. The directives imposed by the Keystone Exams will unequivocally destroy any control at the local level, he added.

“Right now, it all comes under teachers, school boards and principals how grading works. I think the state needs to make more clear the precise purpose of the Keystone Exams. Are we looking to prepare a student for the world of work, or are we preparing students for the world of college or other possibilities after high school graduation?

“Is it supported by clear research and data that their success in college and/or the work world will go up? I think as part of the review process they should be looking at other states and see if it has had a positive effect.”

According to, 26 states either currently have a high school exit exam or plan to adopt one. Given the number of high school students in those states, more than two-thirds of the nation’s public high school students are affected by the exams. The exams vary from state to state in terms of content and opportunities for students who do not pass to retake the test and prove their competency.

Most states test students on their reading, writing and math skills as part of the high school exit exams. Nine states use end-of-course tests on specific classes, such as English, rather than specific grade-level tests, which allows students to take the test for a particular subject after they have completed the course rather than taking the test at a designated grade level.

Remediation classes and opportunities to take the test again are offered by most states.

Jane Callahan, Upper Merion Area School District assistant superintendent said she would reserve judgment on the Keystone Exams until she saw “a final picture of exactly what it’s going to look like. The Pennsylvania School Board Association has been following it very carefully and they just put out an update where they said at this time they don’t support it, so I’m following all of that very closely.

“We get regular updates from the Legislature, so we know what’s going on and where things are in the process,” she added. “Like every other school district, we’re paying close attention to the discussions that are taking place. Nothing is finalized yet so until then I don’t think the districts know clearly what the options will wind up being.”

The possibilities that have been discussed include allowing the exams to cover specific disciplines, Callahan noted.

Four states currently use end-of-course exams. By 2015, 11 states will rely on end-of-course tests to determine if a student receives a high school diploma, while others will have a dual testing system in place that includes the high school exit exam and end-of-course exams. The 14 states that will use end-of-course exams by 2015 are: Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

“Another possible option would be local assessment which would have to be verified by an outside provider.”

According to, five companies are responsible for producing the majority of state tests currently in use: CTB/McGraw-Hill, Educational Testing Service, Harcourt Assessment, Pearson Educational Measurement and Riverside Publishing. Together, they own about 90 percent of the state-testing business, which has blossomed into a $1.1 billion industry since passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The law, which took effect in January 2002, requires states to give annual reading and math tests to third through eighth graders, and to re-test students in those subjects in high school.

On Sept. 21 the Keystone exams were formally submitted to the IRRC legislative committee, as well as the House and Senate Education Committee

“Text of the regulations is not yet posted but will be eventually, along with the required regulatory analysis document sometime soon,” Callahan said. “Without the text being published, it’s difficult to know what it’s going to say.”

IRRC will meet in Harrisburg on Oct. 22.

The House and Senate Education Committee have until 24 hours before the meeting to take action on the regulations, she allowed.

Testimony of Secretary of Education Gerald L. Zahorchak before the Senate Education Committee in June — available at — supported the case for stronger high school graduation requirements.

“Let me underscore why business leaders statewide, the State Board of Education, and many of our educational leaders believe there is such a sense of urgency in addressing the need to better prepare our students for college and the workforce,” Zahorchak said, as he made the following points: Approximately 50,000 students graduate each year from a Pennsylvania public high school without demonstrating proficiency on the PSSAs.

A 2009 study by Penn State’s College of Education revealed that only 18 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts — making up less than 3 percent of the state’s total public school enrollment — appropriately measure whether their students can read and do math at the 12th grade level in order to award high school diplomas, according to a February 2009 study.

Zahorchak also noted that in 2007-08, 20,394 public high school graduates who enrolled in a public higher education institution required some form of remediation, with a total cost to taxpayers, students, and parents in excess of $26 million.

Finally, it was revealed that 66 percent of business leaders surveyed considered it a high priority that new employees be able to demonstrate that they have the basic skills to enter the workforce.

Colonial School District superintendent Vince Cotter regards the Keystone Exams as a burdensome mandate.

“It’s being imposed on school districts like Colonial that have made AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) consistently,” Cotter said. “Additionally, it appears to structurally and financially penalize the districts that have previously invested heavily in the development of final exams that are aligned with state and national standards.

“From a practical perspective, the Keystone Exams’ percentage calculated into a student’s final grade appears to be too heavily weighted and further undermines a rigorous curriculum already designed to address national and state standards,” he added.

“Finally, at a time when additional state funding for a district like Colonial is virtually non-existent and local revenues have diminished due to the downturn in the economy along with previously established financial limitations through Act 1, the development of a state testing program that would literally cost millions of dollars should be reconsidered in this current economic environment.”

Gary Puleo can be reached at 610-272-2500, ext. 205, or

This is definitely something that can change at any moment. Legislators are dealing with this and the budget at the same time.

Thanks for reading.