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Chester County Press

Keystone Exams are focus of Education Committee hearing

07/30/2015 10:08AM ● By J. Chambless

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Adding their voices to the rising tide against implementing the Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) issued a statement on July 29 calling for a “pause” in the testing implementation.

The House Education Committee held hearings on July 29 on the topic of the Keystones. According to the PSBA, most speakers came out against the tests, including Stephen Kunkel, a school director in the Palisades School District, and Bill LaCoff, board president of the Owen J. Roberts School District.

“The research is quite clear that these [tests] are of extremely negative value, and have a very large and unfavorable impact on graduation rates,” Kunkel said during his testimony.

Opponents to using the tests as a graduation requirement cite the National Research Council's findings that the tests do not prepare students for college work, increase dropout rates and are not associated with workforce success. Many opponents say the high-stakes tests require teachers to instruct students only so they can pass the tests.

Dr. Jack Silva, the assistant superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District, said, “Annual state tests have their place in helping schools assess students' acquisition of core concepts in algebra, literature and biology, but those once-a-year test results of core concepts do not reflect, or even approach, the totality of a prepared graduate.”

The PSBA cites figures that indicate the state has spent about $70 million over six years on testing development. “Millions more will be spent to distribute, collect, analyze and report test results,” the PSBA statement reads.

Speaking at a town hall meeting on July 29 at the Avon Grove Intermediate School, Sen. Andy Dinniman spoke about his opposition to the Keystones. In a summary of his position that was given to people at the meeting, Dinniman wrote, “The implementation of these standardized tests has resulted in a more than $300 million unfunded mandate on school districts. This is in addition to the more than $20 million the state is spending on developing the tests. By limiting them to three, instead of five exams, we have already succeeded in saving Chester County school districts millions of dollars.”

“I fought against the Keystones since day one,” Dinniman told the crowd at the meeting. “I'm damned if I can find out what the purpose of these tests is. In the end, any superintendent of schools can exempt 10 percent of the students and graduate them anyway. The districts can sign a paper and promise to do better next year and graduate everyone. It would be different if there was any real accountability,” Dinniman said, “But there is none.”

Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board member Jeff Hellrung has been a supporter of the Keystone Exams, and has spoken on the issue at several recent board meetings. In an emailed statement to the Chester County Press last week, Hellrung wrote, “We have appropriate academic standards in the important core academic areas of high school English, algebra, and biology. The Keystones are valid and reliable measures of students learning what they need to know in those critical subjects. Students who pass the Keystones have demonstrated that they are competent in these subjects and that should be a requirement to graduate.

“Nobody claims that success in those exams is the only important outcome of high school,” Hellrung wrote. “Of course, we are trying to produce competent and well-rounded citizens, and demonstrated competence is these three areas is only a small part of high school success. But it is an important part. We should actually be adding a Keystone Exam in American government to the graduation requirements.

“Another important point is that students unable to pass Keystones the first time can get additional instruction and then retake the exam,” Hellrung continued. “Even if students continue to fail the exam, they can do a project in its place. Even failing the project, superintendents have the discretion to pass up to 10 percent of students. That is more than reasonable.

“Our real problem is that too many students are graduating high school without being college or workplace ready, and we are not insisting on holding either students or our public schools accountable. Reducing graduation requirements will only mask our problems and delay educational improvement,” Hellrung concluded.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].