New Castle News

May 20, 2013

In The Schools: Keystone Exam could up graduation stakes

John Finnerty
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The typical Pennsylvania student will spend more than 46 hours taking standardized state tests during his or her academic career.

That equals more than a week’s worth of school and does not take into account the amount of time that schools spend specifically preparing for tests or helping students who have failed standardized tests.

Those tests are used to chart the effectiveness of school districts and specific schools, but until now, students didn’t have to pass them to graduate.

The Corbett Administration is changing that, as the state has quietly rolled out a plan to require all high school students to pass algebra, biology and literature tests in order to get a diploma.

But the move is not without controversy.

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County, introduced legislation last week to prevent the state from making the Keystone Exam a graduation requirement.

“I do not oppose raising basic proficiency standards, but I object to implementation of this mandate without proper resources, training and support,” said Dinniman, the Democratic chairman of the Senate education committee. “The problem I have with these modified standards is that the Corbett Administration arbitrarily changed a policy, and that change will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and impact the ability of students to graduate.”

The state will spend about $20 million this year to make and grade standardized tests for students across the Commonwealth, Tim Eller, a Department of Education spokesman said.

The business community has been lobbying for the administrations shift to high-stakes testing and more stringent standards. The concept of developing a nationwide Common Core of standards was funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Pennsylvania’s new standards are slightly modified versions of the national Common Core standards.

The Team PA Foundation, a non-profit group, most well-known for sponsoring overseas trade missions for the governor, has been lobbying for the new standards as well. The business group argues that the state needs to take steps to ensure that students graduate from high school ready-to-work.

Twenty-six states demand that student pass an exit exam to graduate. Eight of those states have linked the graduation test to the Common Core standards. Pennsylvania and 10 other states are moving to add a graduation test, according to the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University.

Rosemary Boland, president of the Scranton Federation of Teachers traveled to Harrisburg to join Dinniman and other Democrats at a press conference to decry the plan to make the Keystone Exams a graduation requirement.

“We waste four weeks a year testing,” Boland said. “The country has gone mad for testing.”

The teachers union said that the state is rushing to roll out the tests before teachers are fully trained.

Dinniman and other Democrats argue that the cost of trying to adjust to the new standards and help students pass the new Keystone Exams will cost local school districts $300 million.

Dinniman and other Democrats argue that the administration is setting up students and the schools to fail by rolling out the high-stakes test at the same time the state is adopting new and more rigorous academic standards.

Dinninman said that lawmakers thought they had successfully reached an agreement with administration officials to cushion the weight of the Keystone Exam. Dinniman said that under this plan, the Keystone Exam would be worth one-third of the student’s grade in the subject.

The Department of Education, instead, opted to have the exams stand alone as a graduation requirement.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)