Should Keystone Exams be phased out? Local administrators weigh in

5 min read193 views and 34 shares Posted September 11, 2019

The school year is back in motion. Fresh-faced students are getting back into the swing of school clubs, stacks of homework, and, yes, preparing for standardized testing.

As of now, Pennsylvania students are required to pass the Keystone Exams in Algebra 1, Literature, and Biology in order to graduate. However, a new special report suggests phasing them out altogether.

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July 10, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released a special report recommending that the Pennsylvania Department of Education strongly consider phasing out Keystone Exams in favor of the PSAT, SAT, or ACT.

The report, titled Where Did Your Money Go (PDF), discusses the costs brought on by the Keystones and suggests offering a nationally recognized test like the SAT or ACT as a less costly alternative. As of now, at least 12 states administer the SAT or ACT in this fashion.

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Federal and state law around the Keystones

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, high schools were required to offer state-specific standardized testing. In Pennsylvania, this took the form of the Algebra 1, Literature, and Biology Keystone exams.

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When the No Child Left Behind Act was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, the standardized testing no longer needed to be state specific. Nationally recognized standardized testing like the SAT or ACT could legally take the place of state-specific tests.

Pennsylvania opted to continue using the Keystones, and in 2016 the state Department of Education extended its contract to offer the Keystones until June 2021.

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While the Keystones began as a statewide graduation requirement, 2018’s Act 158, passed by Gov. Tom Wolf, changes this somewhat. Starting with the class of 2022, students will be able to graduate high school without passing the Keystones so long as they meet other requirements.

Students who do not receive proficient scores on one or more of the exams can graduate through an Alternate Assessment Pathway, Evidence Based Pathway, or CTE Pathway.

These pathways allow students to substitute SAT or AP scores, acceptance to a four-year college, industry-based competency certification, or various other options for a non-proficient Keystone exam so long as they fulfill local grade-based requirements in relevant content areas.

While these students can now graduate without being proficient in the Keystones, they are still required to take the exams under state law.

DePasquale’s recommendations

Within the report, DePasquale recommends the removal of mandatory Keystone Exams based both on cost and functionality.

According to the report, Pennsylvania spends tens of millions of dollars each year to finance standardized testing.

While the federal government supplies funds to help finance standardized testing, in Pennsylvania most or all of this goes to the PSSAs, leaving states to fund high school testing.

“When the federal law changed in 2015, why didn’t Pennsylvania begin to phase out the Keystone Exams?” said DePasquale in a release. “I could understand if they used them for a short time after that, but it’s been four years — and if PDE completes the current contract they will have spent nearly $100 million.”

In the 2017-2018 school year, the state paid $17.6 million to Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp., the Keystones’ creators, for the test and its Classroom Diagnostic Tools (online preparation assessments for the Keystones).

In comparison, schools could provide PSATs and full SATs (with writing segments), for around $16.4 million total. Without including the writing portion of the SAT (with fewer colleges requiring it), the cost decreases to $13.1 million.

“Pennsylvania should aggressively explore using a nationally recognized test that can open new doors for students rather than continuing to spend money on an exam that is no longer required,” said DePasquale. “For less than what Pennsylvania spends on the Keystone Exams, it could instead pick up the tab for every high school student to take the PSAT or SAT.”

In addition to financial motivations, the report also claims that students on the whole would benefit from the change.

The report notes that Keystone scores are often better in wealthier areas, citing this as a reason the Keystones do not benefit students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

It also cites research claiming that requiring all students to take the SAT increases the rate students attend post-secondary education, particularly low-income students.

“Not only would this change benefit families who now have to pay out of pocket for their children to take these nationally recognized tests, it could help students who are not on a college track discover that they could succeed in college and possibly change the course of their future,” said DePasquale.

However, the report also points out that Pennsylvania would need to pass peer-review standards of accountability and that students with accommodations may not be well-served by this system.

What local administrators think

LebTown reached out to administrators at Annville-Cleona, Cornwall-Lebanon, Eastern Lebanon County, Lebanon, Northern Lebanon, and Palmyra Area school districts about their thoughts on a potential shift from Keystones to a nationally recognized test like the SAT.

At the time of publishing, representatives from Annville-Cleona, Cornwall-Lebanon, and Palmyra responded and gave us their thoughts on this potential change.

Annville-Cleona School District

Annville-Cleona Assistant Superintendent Dr. Andrea Flocken stated that the district’s curriculum is designed around Pennsylvania’s Common Core standards and will most likely remain so until/unless graduation requirements change.

Annville-Cleona offers the PSAT to all students during the school day. Around 70 percent of its students take the SAT, performing above the state average.

“If the PSAT, SAT, and ACT tests took the place of the Keystones, our students and our school would be positively impacted,” said Flocken.

Flocken said that the district will adapt to whatever changes are made to state graduation requirements.

“As a district, we will work to do whatever we need to do to make our students successful,” said Flocken. “That effort includes being certain that our students graduate and are prepared for both college and career choices.

“As graduation requirements have changed over time, as a district, we have altered our goals so that our students can be successful.”

Cornwall-Lebanon School District

Cedar Crest High School Principal Dr. Nicole Malinoski noted that the current curricula for Algebra 1, Literature, and Biology are aligned with the Keystones.

She pointed out that while the school now offers opportunities for students to take the PSAT, SAT, and ACT, not all students would benefit from being required to take these exams.

“We do offer the PSAT to juniors during the school day, and ACT testing is offered at CCHS on three Saturdays each year,” said Malinoski. “Students who wish to take the SAT may participate in Saturday workshops at CCHS and search online for testing locations.

“But, not all students choose to take the ACT or SAT tests. Mandating that all students take a test designed for college success does not make sense to me.”

Malinoski also said that standardized tests are not the most reliable way of measuring students, and students should have a variety of options for how to demonstrate proficiency for graduation.

“I believe we do not have enough information about how this recommendation would work, how each student’s information would be tracked, and who would track it,” said Malinoski. “Students who currently do not do well on standardized tests will not be helped by this change.”

Palmyra Area School District

Palmyra Area High School Principal Dr. Scott Richardson commented that since current curriculum is aligned to Keystone standards, this change would require significant curriculum changes.

“For years, our team has worked hard to be sure that our curriculum is aligned and that we analyze data so that we are meeting PDE expectations,” said Richardson. “This would take us back to ground zero where we would have a lot of work to do to figure the best way to prepare students. Our school could be impacted because, as a district, we are evaluated based upon student success and growth on these measures.”

As of now, the PSAT, SAT, and ACT are only tested outside of the school day, since the school spends 12 days a year on Keystone Exams.

Not all Palmyra Area students take the SAT or other nationally recognized standardized exams, so Richardson said that this change would require the school to better prepare students for them.

Richardson does not take a positive or negative stance on the potential change; instead he wants to ensure that the school serves students well while following federal and state guidelines.

“So often in our schools we are required to follow mandates from PDE,” said Richardson. “I have gotten to the point where I feel it is a better use of time to figure out how to successfully address the mandates versus debating whether they are good or bad. We work at Palmyra to have a common-sense approach, realizing it is one data point and minimize the impact on our students.”

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