By John Chambless
This year's ninth-grade students will be the first class required to pass standardized tests to graduate from high school.
The Keystone Exams, which are state tests first given to students last spring, will be mandatory for the class of 2017. The state Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) granted final approval to the Keystones on Nov. 21 in Harrisburg. With a vote of 3 to 2, the commissioners approved regulations which include the Keystone rules and new academic standards of the national Common Core.
Common Core standards unify educational goals for each state in math and English at each grade level. Local school districts are given some leeway in designing their own curricula. The Keystone Exams are Pennsylvania's tests which are designed to meet the requirements of Common Core. Students will now be required to pass algebra 1, literature and biology Keystone Exams to graduate high school. Students may take the test several times until they pass, and local districts will be able to waive the requirement in some special cases.
The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District was one of only a few local districts to embrace the Keystone Exams, which have seen some backlash from lawmakers and school superintendents who object to the costs of administering the tests. A letter was sent to the IRRC in November from superintendents in Bucks, Chester and Montgomery counties, saying that the costs would be crippling for poorer districts, and that some students may drop out rather than pass the exams.
At the Nov. 18 meeting of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board, member Jeff Hellrung spoke about the support of the Keystones offered by the district administration and superintendent John Sanville.
“As of this morning, we're up to 59 out of 62 of our top superintendents and intermediate unit leaders who are urging state officials that this plan not be adopted,” Hellrung said. “I just want to proudly congratulate Dr. Sanville for being one of the three superintendents in our area who has no problem with adopting these standards, with being accountable, and with making sure that our students get the very best education.
“I think that any top-notch educational system has to have appropriate educational standards,” he continued. “We need to know what the kids need to be able to do. In the Common Core, we have those standards. Then we have to figure out if they've met the standards. We need valid and reliable testing to figure out if they meet the standards – those are the Keystone tests.
“Finally we need consequences. It has to matter if you've met the standard. We now have that. You don't have to pass necessarily -- there are opportunities for projects, opportunities for re-tests, opportunities for remediation.
“I am extremely proud of our superintendent, of our board -- which has supported the superintendent on this – and our teachers, who have worked together with their educational leaders. We're one of only three districts going forward and saying that we're OK with being appropriately accountable. We think that our kids are going to do fine. We're not going to just say, 'Give us more money, give us less accountability.' We're going to say that we'll deliver that product -- that educated student.”
Chester County Senator Andy Dinniman, who is the minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, has been a vocal opponent of the Keystone Exams, particularly objecting to the unknown costs of giving the tests.
The rules approved on Nov. 21 modify regulations from 2010. Under the prior regulations, students had to take six out of 10 exams, which counted for a third of their final grades. Under the new rules, five exams will be gradually phased in through 2020. The class of 2017 will be required to pass algebra 1, literature and biology. The Keystone Exams are now not linked to a student's grades, and a prior requirement for a senior project has been dropped.