Instead of Nixing the Keystone Exams, PDE Recommends a Cornucopia of Tests

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The answer is in.

After a summer of intense study, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has a solution to our exit exam problem.

Last year we almost failed half of our high school seniors state wide because they couldn’t pass all three of our poorly constructed Keystone Exams. So we decided not to count the scores for two years in order to find a way to fix the problem.

And now PDE has a recommendation for the legislature.

Drop the Keystone Exams? Base graduation on the completion of high school classwork?

NOPE.

PDE still loves standardized testing. It just wants to give kids more choice about which standardized tests they can take.

Instead of having to pass the Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Literature and Biology, state policy-makers suggest a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of test-heavy paths to graduation.

Four choices.

Four paths to a diploma.

And they all involve lots and lots of multiple choice, sharpen-your-number-two-pencil, standardized tests.

PDE suggests that students can:

1)         Achieve scores on all three Keystone Exams that when averaged out produce a passing score. So maybe you fail the Biology test but your Algebra I and Literature scores are high enough to even out to a passing score.

2)         Achieve a passing score on some other standardized test approved by the state – SAT, ACT, etc. So maybe you take the Keystone Biology exam and the SAT for English and Math.

3)         For vocational students only – get passing grades in your high school classes, and pass a standardized assessment made for vocational students or otherwise provide evidence of success in that field of study.

4)         Get passing grades in your high school courses and provide at least three pieces of evidence of postsecondary success. More on what counts as evidence later.

PDE estimates these new alternative graduation requirements will be much more effective than the old ones.

The first option of allowing an average score on all three Keystone Exams, for instance, would mean that 72% of Pennsylvania students would thus be eligible for graduation vs. 51% under the old requirement.

The remaining 28% of high schoolers could then meet the graduation requirement by following one of the other three paths.

In most cases, this means more standardized testing – you just get to choose which test to take.

Under the fourth option, students only need to pass their courses and provide three pieces of evidence that they deserve to graduate. But what counts as evidence?
Please pick three from the following menu:

1)         Earn a passing grade in a dual enrollment course. In other words, pass a class in high school that will count as a college credit – maybe an advanced foreign language or math.

2)         Pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) – the entrance exam to qualify for military service. I don’t think you have to actually enlist, but you have to take and pass the test.

3)         Get a letter from an employer guaranteeing you have full-time employment after high school.

4)         Attain a high value industry credential.

5)         Get a certificate that you successfully  completed an internship related to your career goals.

6)         Pass a standardized test such as the PA Career Academic Work Standards assessment and/or SAT.

One notable absence from these choices is a Project Based Assessment (PBA).

Previous legislation allowed students who failed the Keystones to complete PBAs in place of one or more tests. Students would research a specific topic with a trained tutor who would evaluate students’ work and provide feedback. It was designed for students unable or unwilling to pass specific Keystone Exams.

However, this was extremely expensive.

Over the past year, approximately 6,700 students throughout the state completed 15,700 PBAs. In many cases, it took them more than 30 hours to finish each assessment. This put a tremendous burden on local school districts to hire additional staff and remediate students from missed coursework. It also cost the state more money to hire additional people to score the PBAs.

According to the report, an unnamed suburban southeastern district told PDE it had to hire nine specialists at a cost of $900,000. A large unnamed urban district estimated PBAs would cost it an additional $4.1 million. PDE, itself, would need an additional $7 million to grade these assessments.

There were also concerns of whether the PBAs could be completed in a secure fashion to make sure students weren’t cheating. However, the majority of concerns were financial.

As a result, PDE recommended doing away with PBAs.

This leaves the question of what to do with students whose parents opt them out of standardized testing. Under previous legislation, these kids could take PBAs. It is unclear what they could do now to achieve the graduation requirement since so many of the options suggested by PDE involve taking some form of standardized test.

It remains to be seen if lawmakers decide to trample on parents rights in this way.

So that’s it. Four paths to graduation.

There are many ways in which these alternatives are an improvement to the old pass-the-Keystones-or-else requirement.

First, the new plan acknowledges that students don’t need to be equally strong in all academic areas. Someone going into technical school has less reason to demonstrate skill in Biology than someone entering the medical field, for instance.

Also, this provides different options to qualify for a diploma instead of different kinds of diplomas. It had been suggested that students who don’t pass all tests might get a second tier diploma, perhaps even one of several tiers of diploma. So a blue diploma might mean you did pretty good, but not as good as a gold diploma, etc. We can be thankful PDE nixed that terrible idea.

Another positive is that PDE acknowledges standardized tests are not the only possible measure of success. Moreover, some measures of that success can be fairly determined at the district level.

Personally, I wish they went further with this. The authors of the report admit that colleges and employers rarely look at standardized test scores. Report card grades are a much better predictor of future success at both the college and career level. PDE cites three different peer-reviewed academic studies that come to this conclusion, but state education officials don’t have the bravery to likewise conclude that standardized assessments are unnecessary. Instead they play around at the edges, allow choice among standardized assessments and a complicated metric relying heavily on these assessments.

Moreover, as refreshing as it is to have state government admit that we can trust our local school districts to make some decisions about their students, why can’t we go one step further and say local districts can determine who deserves a diploma, in the first place? For centuries this is exactly what our schools did. In fact, the majority of people currently holding down jobs were determined to be ready for those jobs or their college experiences by just those same local school districts. Is America so incompetent that it needs standardized test corporations to bless everyone before being allowed to graduate? Would we be a better nation if everyone had to pass a standardized test to qualify for the workforce?

In short, the report from PDE certainly represents an improvement on the current Keystone Exam graduation requirement. However, it shows a real lack of courage and conviction by state functionaries.

There is no academic reason to have a graduation requirement beyond traditional coursework. It will only suppress the graduation rate as it has in other states in which it has been enacted. If we really wanted to increase the quality of high school graduates, we’d invest in them. We’d lower class size. We’d provide a wide curriculum. We’d provide equitable funding for children at different points on the socioeconomic scale. We’d provide services and tutoring for our most disadvantaged students.

Instead, we’re still just putting up more hurdles and demanding kids pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Something clearly must be done.

If the legislature doesn’t make changes, the requirement to pass all three Keystone Exams will apply to current high school freshman and sophomores.

There’s never been an exit exam like this in Pennsylvania before – in fact, almost the entire workforce, business community and state leadership somehow managed to get by without one. But whatever; these children today need to prove themselves.

Kids, passing your courses isn’t enough anymore. You’ve got to pass a test. Several of them in fact.

Never mind that you have to pass tests to succeed in your courses. THOSE tests are designed by teachers. You have to pass a real test – something designed by a corporation.

As big business continues to floods our lawmakers with campaign cash, somewhere along the way our representatives decided to spend a truckload of our tax dollars on big business – to make tests. Can’t imagine why.

In 2014, the legislature decided you’d have to pass a series of 10 Keystone Exams in core subjects. Fail even one of them and you’d get nothing but a certificate of attendance. So 12-13 years of schooling and you get this:

“Hey! Remember Paulie?”
 
 
“Yeah?”
 
 
“He was here.”

However, creating 10 brand new tests costs an awful lot of money. Pennsylvania shelled out more than $200 million before lawmakers said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and stopped with just the three we have. But before even these could be made permanent prerequisites of graduation, the scores came in.

It wasn’t good. About half of all students in both traditional public schools and charter schools couldn’t pass them all.

Why?

Well, the Common Core aligned tests were of dubious quality and zero validity based on actual educational research. Also, we cut off educational supports by slashing school budgets by almost $1 billion a year. Oh, and we spent way more money on rich students than poor students earning us the dubious distinction of having the most inequitable school funding in the nation.

Not exactly a recipe for success.

So what was the state to do – move forward and withhold diplomas for half of all students? Or Toss out the tests and move on?

Instead, lawmakers came up with a unanimous compromise – more time. The legislature decided to pause the Keystone requirement for two years in order to better study what could be done.

And now PDE has it’s test heavy solution to move forward.

People of conscience need to stand up and oppose any kind of additional exit exam in Pennsylvania. Parents, teachers and students need to band together. School board directors need to pass resolutions. Thoughtful lawmakers need to put forward progressive legislation.
The resistance has already begun.

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