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Chester County Press

Dinniman meets with students at Kennett Middle School about Keystone Exams

01/29/2016 10:21AM ● By J. Chambless

Sen. Dinniman talks to students at Kennett Middle School on Jan. 28.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

For the past four years, State Sen. Andy Dinniman has been battling to overturn the Keystone Graduation Exams in Pennsylvania, and on Jan. 28 at Kennett Middle School, he had an audience that completely agreed with him.

Eighth-grade students in Kate Madigan's English class chose to research and write essays about the Keystone Exams as part of a class project, and they mailed their essays to Dinniman. “When I read their essays, they were saying exactly what I've been saying,” Dinniman said before entering the classroom to speak to the students.

Sitting at a school desk in Madigan's classroom, Dinniman spent an hour discussing his reasons for opposing the tests, and asked for students to explain how they learn, and whether they felt that passing a test should be a requirement for graduation from high school.

Under the original guidelines for the Keystone Graduation Exams, beginning with the class of 2017, students would have to pass exams in algebra, biology and language arts to receive a diploma. Students who failed any of the three tests could get supplemental education and take the test again. If they still failed, they could take a project-based assessment. This project had to be completed under the guidance of one of their teachers, but had to be graded by two teachers from some other school.

“In the winter of 2015, there were 126,000 students in Pennsylvania who failed for the second time,” Dinniman said. “That meant there had to be around 250,000 teachers recruited to correct these tests.”

The final flaw in what Dinniman called the “phony” tests was that principals could excuse up to 10 percent of a class that failed an exam, and allow them to graduate anyway. Superintendents could also put together an improvement plan, and with Department of Education approval, could excuse more than 10 percent of students from passing the exam. “So where is the accountability?” Dinniman asked.

Grading of the tests takes so long that students would not get their results back until they were already in classes for the following year. “The purpose of the test is diagnostic, to show progress,” Dinniman said. “If you don't get the results back until next year, how can a teacher use that test information to help you learn? To get help a year later is meaningless.”

Dinniman brought up the issue of students with learning disabilities that would prevent them from scoring well on the tests. “To tell you the truth, I would have failed these tests,” he said. “I had a learning disability that wasn't diagnosed until I was in the 11th grade. I saw numbers backwards. I was not good at taking tests.”

Under Keystone regulations, for students who are not native English speakers, “if you were here for 366 days, you have to take the test in English,” Dinniman said. “So is it surprising that most of those students fail?”

Students in the class suggested other ways to test knowledge, including testing unit by unit, working with students to make sure each part of a subject is understood, instead of testing a subject all at once. The eighth graders also discussed how they select topics that interest them, and collaborate with each other to refine their written work in class.

“That's the right way to learn,” Dinniman said. “We just need to get the federal government out of it. … What your teacher does is connect you to knowledge and see where your interests are,” he told the students. “The goal is to make each of you a lifetime learner.”

Dinniman pointed out that “this is a $300 million unfunded mandate from the federal government. Pennsylvania blows around $500 million to $600 million on preparation, testing and grading.”

The financial bottom line struck a chord with Kennett Middle School principal Lorenzo DeAngelis, who was watching Dinniman's presentation from the back of the classroom. “Did you hear that?” he asked the class. “It costs that much for this testing. That money could be spent elsewhere.”

Dinniman ended with some good news for the class. At the end of 2015, Pennsylvania lawmakers agreed to postpone the Keystones for two years as a graduation requirement. “You still have to take the test,” Dinniman said, “But I think that, ultimately, it will go away.”

Pennsylvania is due to submit an alternate testing plan to the federal government by August, Dinniman said. “I believe we are about to enter the most important six months in the history of education in Pennsylvania,” he told the class. “The state must redefine what assessment means and how to evaluate students and teachers. The key is teaching, not testing. We must return teaching to the teachers, and not to the federal government, and not to the people who are making money by coming up with these tests.

“We will still do assessments, but it will be a test that's fair, and tied to the curriculum. You don't learn if someone stamps you as a failure.”

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