Key educational stakeholders from across southeastern Pennsylvania came together to denounce the educational and financial impact of Keystone Exams, the end-of-year assessments which could prevent some high school seniors from receiving their diplomas three years from now. The consensus among attendees of the April 24 Keystone Impact Briefing is that the Keystone Exams must be removed as a graduation requirement for Pennsylvania students.
The new regulations that went into effect March 1, 2014 require every public high school student in Pennsylvania, beginning with the Class of 2017, to pass the Keystone Exams in Language Arts, Algebra 1 and Biology in order to receive a high school diploma from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Keystone Impact Briefing featured a stakeholder panel discussion followed by an open question period for Pennsylvania state legislators, including Senator Andy Dinniman, Representative Dan Truitt and Representative Chris Ross.
“The sad fact of the matter is that the vast majority of parents, students and the community are completely unaware of the impact of the new Chapter 4 regulations,” said Dr. Joseph O’Brien, CCIU executive director. “While on the surface this regulation may seem to make sense, when you peel back the layers, you quickly realize the financial, academic and social consequences of these new regulations.”
The controversy surrounding the Keystone Exams is quickly building to what opponents call a perfect storm. “When the Class of 2017 entered our buildings this year, the stakes changed,” said Dr. Amy Meisinger, principal of Conestoga High School in Chester County’s Tredyffrin/Easttown School District. “The stress is now palpable. It’s real for the students, it’s real for the teachers and it’s starting to become real for the parents.”
One of the chief drawbacks is their one size fits all nature. The Keystone Exams are a primary roadblock to what many panelists emphasized as the lifeblood of education: meeting the needs of individual learners. “How can one test be reflective of all educational efforts and capabilities over 12 years?” asked William LaCoff, Board Director of Owen J. Roberts School District and President-Elect of PSBA. The bottom line, he said, is that the Keystone Exams have become destructive, rather than instructive, for Pennsylvania’s students.
It was not a far stretch for Dr. Jim Scanlon of the West Chester Area School District (WCASD) to draw a parallel to the No Child Left Behind law. In fact, 2014 is the year by which 100 percent proficiency in reading and math was to be achieved. “It was an impossible task, but for 14 years we stifled creativity in the classroom to focus on a goal that we weren’t going to be able to meet anyway,” said Dr. Scanlon. “We are about to do the same thing with the Keystone Exams, and now is the time to make a change.”
Noting its 62 percent pass rate, Dr. Scanlon offered several profiles of otherwise bright WCASD students who failed the Biology Keystone Exam. For their counterparts in the Class of 2017, failing that exam would result in remediation efforts that will severely curb access to elective courses that so often serve as the spark for future careers.
For West Chester Henderson senior Max Kneis, it was a high school business elective that solidified his desire to study finance at the University of Pittsburgh. “If I had failed the Keystone Exam the previous year, I would never been given the opportunity to take that elective and I wouldn’t have discovered what I want to do with my life,” he said.
According to Dr. William Keilbaugh, superintendent of the School District of Haverford Township in Delaware County, the Keystone Exams are also robbing schools of time and energy that should be focused on classroom instruction. In his district, the number of calendars days devoted to high-stakes testing has jumped from 45 days in 2011-12 to 120 days in 2013-14 associated with the implementation of Keystone Exams.
“We have an anarchy of regulation right now,” said Dr. Keilbaugh. “The policymakers have tunnel-vision and they don't see what it looks like on the ground.”
Meanwhile, the superintendent of Bucks County’s Council Rock School District, spoke to the “onerous at best” financial toll. For this year alone, Dr. Mark Klein’s district allocated nearly $250,000 to creating a system to implement the exams. He noted that costs extend far beyond the staffing and alternative scheduling related to the exam sessions themselves, into the remediation that will come afterwards for students who do not pass the exam the first time.
Legislators acknowledged the drawbacks to the Keystone Exams but emphasized the absolute necessity of ensuring students are prepared for the modern world.
"I agree the Keystone exams are a bad idea but if I introduce this bill, it's dead on arrival in the House Education Committee if we don't have some alternative to pitch,” Representative Dan Truitt, in response to a request to uncouple Keystone Exams from the graduation requirement.
Senator Andy Dinniman encouraged superintendents, teachers and parents to stand as one. “Legislators will listen when the local citizens who elected them start to talk,” said Senator Dinniman. “You have that power if only you are willing to step forward. Your parents are waiting, and your students are waiting.”
“What my colleagues will soon find out in the legislature is that opposition is more widespread and deeply felt than we realized,” he concluded.