Officials voice concerns about Keystone exams

from the Delaware County Daily Times

by Loretta Rodgers

September 13, 2016

ASTON >> Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Democratic Policy Committee on Monday convened at Northley Middle School and listened to more than two hours of testimony related to graduation requirements and high-stakes testing.

Discussion was specifically centered around the Keystone graduation requirement, originally scheduled to go into effect with the class of 2017, but with the passage of House Bill 880 in February 2016, the implementation of the requirement was delayed until the 2018-2019 school year.

The graduation requirement, which would make it necessary for all high school seniors in Pennsylvania to take and pass tests in the areas of Algebra I, Biology, and Language Arts in order to earn a diploma, has come under fire by educators, school board members, parents and students alike.

“The issue of testing has come up time and time again,” said state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, D-161, of Swarthmore. “Students told me how much of their time was taken up by testing and they told me how much they were not able to do because of testing and it got me thinking seriously about this issue.”

Krueger-Braneky, who is running for re-election this year against Republican Patti Rodgers Morrisette, indicated that high-stakes testing puts unnecessary pressure on students, who are fearful of not graduating even though they do well in school.

Monday’s testimony was offered by Matt Stern, deputy secretary for the office of elementary and secondary education, Pennsylvania Department of Education; Dr. George Steinhoff, superintendent of the Penn-Delco School District; Jerry Oleksiak, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA); Jon Callahan, assistant executive director, Pennsylvania School Boards Association; Lawrence Feinberg, founder and co-chair, Keystone Education Collation and Donna Cooper, executive director, Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Steinhoff told the committee that he has received countless complaints about the examinations and is pleased that lawmakers listened and hit the pause button on the use of high- stakes standardized tests as an additional gateway to graduation.

“To be clear, I believe that the original goals that preceded the development of the Keystone exams may have had merit, but somewhere along the way those goals morphed into a requirement that runs counter to the needs of students, gets in the way of the necessary preparation for college and career success, and inhibits our ability to develop the skills that colleges and the business community desire from our graduates,” Steinhoff said. “The Keystone graduation requirement should not come back to Pennsylvania.”

Stern told the committee that as part of the passage of House Bill 880, his department was instructed to investigate alternative options for the state level graduation requirement and provide recommendations to the General Assembly. 

Stern discussed four options for students to demonstrate post secondary readiness, which include achieving an identified composite score based on performance on the three subject matters; achieving equivalent scores on standards-based matter content areas in one of the alternate assessments approved by the PDE; demonstrate competency through course grades or assessments, plus for those students identified as career and technical education, demonstrate evidence of readiness via the National Occupancy Competency Testing Institute, National Institute of Metalworking Skills assessments or competency certificates; or demonstrate competency through course grades or assessments plus evidence related to post secondary plans that demonstrate a readiness to engage in those plans.

Oleksiak stressed that “students are more than a test score.” 

“High-stakes graduation exams divert scarce resources away from standard-based instruction and a full, rich curriculum that brings the focus on test prep and remediation,” Oleksiak said. “High-stakes testing can trap a student in remediation even if that student passed all required courses and earned all credits for graduation that have been established by their local school district. Students may have to drop electives in art and music, which sometimes are the courses that keep them most engaged school.”

He continued to say that the PSEA is not arguing that Pennsylvania’s high academic standards be revised nor that the tests should disappear completely. 

“What should go away, however, is using the Keystone Exams as a high-stakes test to bar otherwise successful students from earning a high school diploma,” Oleksiak said.

Callahan discussed the financial impact of testing, provided fact-based studies that prove high stakes testing increases drop-out rates and do not prepare students for college success.

“The state needs to provide local school districts with maximum flexibility to make educationally sound decisions that expand opportunities for students, without an over reliance on standardized test scores, high-stake tests and narrowing of the curriculum or prescriptive mandates,” Callahan said. 

And Cooper suggested using the testing to account for a substantial portion of the graduation requirement, but not in its entirety.

“Such an approach preserves local control, allows for flexibility and sends the right signals that our students and schools must know more than book knowledge to be good parents, employees and good citizens,” she said.

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