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Keystone exams put crunch on students

by James Hynes

Students across the state are taking second semester Keystone Exams this month. The Keystone Exams are gradually replacing the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams which have served as the state’s standard assessment since 1998.
In 2009, the National Governors Association commissioned the Student Achievement Partnership, a non-profit nationwide working group of educators and educational researchers, to devise rigorous curriculum standards for Literacy and Mathematics. This was called the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
According to its website, the purpose of the initiative was to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn…for success in college and careers.”
In 2010, Pennsylvania’s Board of Education adopted the Common Core standards to help the state’s schools comply with the federal government’s No Child Left Behind adequate yearly progress requirements.
Under No Child Left Behind, any school receiving Title I funding must demonstrate progress in core subject areas like math and reading. Title I provides financial assistance to schools with high numbers of students from low income familes. According to a policy overview on, two or more consecutive years of failure to demonstrate adequate progress will result in a school being classified “in need of improvement.”
Depending on the number of years that a school or district fails to adequately improve, the respective state must take corrective action. Such action may include adding supplemental resources, extending school days or implementing new curricula.
However, actions may be more punitive. For example, parents may be permitted to transfer their children out, teachers or administrators may be fired, and schools may be restructured (for example, they may be chartered or contracted to outside entities) or closed.
Following the state’s adoption of the national Common Core Standards, a group of Pennsylvania educators subsequently drafted the PA Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics. According to Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Standard Align portal, these are based on the national initiative’s standards but “reflect the organization and design of the [existing] PA Academic Standards.”
In addition to English and mathematics, Common Core Standards for Literacy in social studies and science/technical tubjects have been merged with existing PA Academic Standards in those areas.
The Keystone Exams have been developed to assess school districts’ success in meeting PA Common Core Standards. They will be phased in over several years.
According to State College Area School District Board member, David Hutchinson, the Keystone Exams differ from the PSSAs in significant ways.
“The PSSAs,” he said, “were designed to assess a general level of competence in the broad areas of math and language arts, primarily as feedback for schools.”
“The Keystone Exams are more course specific,” he added. For example, “the Keystones will attempt to measure specifically in Algebra I” as opposed to general mathematics. Also, according to Hutchinson, the new tests will provide information about individual students, not just schools and districts.
Keystones in Action
This year (2012-2013), Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Literature and Biology replaced the PSSA exams in Mathematics, Reading and Science for all 11th grade students.
By the end of this school year, all tenth grade students must also have taken the Keystone Exams. However, the Keystone Exam in Algebra I was piloted two years ago when the current sophomore class was in 8th grade. Those who scored proficient or advanced on that test won’t need to take it again. They will only need to take the Literature and Biology exams.
Ninth grade students who have previously completed an Algebra I course must take the Algebra I Keystone Exams this year. However, those who had taken Accelerated Algebra I and scored proficient or advanced on the piloted Algebra I exams two years ago do not have to take them again.
Eighth grade students who completed Accelerated Algebra I last year or who are taking Algebra I this year must take the Algebra I Keystone Exam this year. Since this applies to few 8th grade students, most will not be taking any Keystone exams this year. However, they will take all three Keystones starting in 10th grade.
The class of 2017 is the first class that will be required to score at least proficient on all the Keystone Exams in order to graduate. For those in 9th grade and above, the Keystones are still mandatory, and those who fail will be expected to retake them. But, for them, passing the exams is not yet required for graduation.
An exam in Composition is also being developed, and a proficient score will eventually be required for the the class of 2019.
A Keystone Exam in Civics and History will be required for the class of 2020. Funds permitting, these exams will begin to be offered in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
In addition, each Local Education Agency (LEA) will establish its own specific requirements for graduation over the next several years. State College Area School District, for example, is considering requiring Geometry beginning in 2016, US History beginning in 2017, Algebra II beginning in 2018, Chemistry beginning in 2019 and World History beginning in 2020.
In such cases, these tests may come in the form of Keystone, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or a locally-created test. Any additional test will depend on the availability of funding.
This year’s Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Biology and Literature were first offered in December with a second round in January. A third round is scheduled between May 13-24. A fourth will be offered in the summer between July 29-August 2. Modules may be given on the same day or spread out over two consecutive days. Make-up exams will be made available to students who fail.
Question types include multiple-choice and constructed response. Tests come in both paper and pencil and computer-based formats. There is no time limit to complete an exam, but based on pilot test data, the typical student should take from 2 to 3 hours to complete the two required modules.
Anyone seeking more information should see the Pa Department of Education’s Standard Align System portal for more details about the exams, score ranges, Common Core Standards, eligible content and accommodations for English Language Learners and students with Individual Education Portfolios (IEPs). The website is: See your local district’s website for Keystone Exam information specific to your schools.
Concerns about the Keystones
Some parents are concerned about the new regimen of assessments.
Hilary Appelman has two children attending State College Area schools, a son in 8th grade and a daughter in 5th grade.
“I don’t know how we’re going to handle the Keystones,” she said. “I’m dismayed by the increasing amount of time schools are being forced to spend ‘teaching to the test’.”
“The hours spent on test prep and practice tests and field tests take away from more authentic instruction,” she added. “How could they not?”
In spite of her opposition to the trend toward more standardized tests, Appelman makes clear that the State College Area School District is managing the standardization movement better than others—so far.
“We are lucky in this district,” she said. “I think that they have minimized the effects as much as possible.” Appelman moved from an urban district where “almost nothing was taught besides English Language Arts and math.”
Nonetheless, Appelman, who opted out of the PSSAs, urges caution in where we go next.
“The state is obviously raising the stakes by making [the Keystone Exams] a graduation requirement,” she said. “I have yet to meet a teacher or other educator, as opposed to a government bureaucrat, who thinks these tests are not hurting our children’s education.”
SCASD School Board member, David Hutchinson, who has testified against the adoption of the Keystone Exams, agrees.
“My biggest concern,” he said, “is that they will institutionalize a system of education that was valid fifty years ago when education was far more content driven than it is today.”
The Keystones, he added, “will force students to spend time on subjects in which they have little interest, and which may be completely irrelevant to their future.”
For example, he said, “how many people use algebra on a regular basis” as opposed to “statistics or probability which are arguably more useful in today’s society?”
Hutchinson asserts that standards aren’t the problem.
“The Common Core Standards are actually a step in the right direction,” he said, “in that they attempt to address higher-order thinking skills and a deeper understanding of subject materials.”
However, he questions the appropriateness of high-stakes tests in evaluating students and teachers.
“Standardized tests do a poor job of assessing the skills and knowledge that our current students will need to be successful,” he said, “and they do a terrible job of assessing student ability.
“The danger lies in the potential for heavy-handed federal mandates that would inadvertently stifle innovation.”
According to Hutchinson, today’s students need “to discover and develop their individual talents, to have knowledge and literacy in a broad range of disciplines, to integrate knowledge across many subjects, to have opportunities to collaborate with others, and to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers.”
“When these are the very skills that the new economy requires,” he concluded, “the education model that underlies the Keystone Exams takes us in exactly the wrong direction.”

  FoxdaleChoice 6-13  

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