Senate Committee weighs new standarized test

Posted: August 28, 2013

As both a teacher and a parent in Lower Merion School District, Danielle Arnold-Schwartz has a unique perspective on the state's proposed Keystone exams, which students would need to pass to graduate high school starting in 2017.

"The exams are not in the best interest of my own children and my students," Arnold-Schwartz said before the start of a public hearing on the controversial tests held Monday by the state Senate Education Committee at Valley Forge Middle School.

Her daughter took a Keystone in Algebra I last year - they have been phased in, but aren't yet tied to graduation - and even though she earned an A in the subject, she failed the test.

"Even if a child has years of success in a content area, they may have anxiety, or they're having a bad day, or their parents are getting divorced, and they do badly on the test, and they cannot graduate," said the eighth-grade teacher at Welsh Valley Middle School.

Several speakers echoed Arnold-Schwartz's sentiment, warning the tests would create more dropouts, bankrupt school districts, which will have to administer the exams without the necessary funds, and shift control in education policy from local districts to the state.

The State Board of Education is set to vote Sept. 11 to authorize three tests - Biology, Algebra I, and Literature - which would be given to students after completing the coursework. If they fail, they can retake the test. If they fail again, they can do a supplementary project, but that would be noted on their diploma.

The graduation requirement would start for this year's ninth graders. Plans call for students to take Keystone tests in up to 10 subject areas in coming years.

Test supporters argue that tens of thousands of students now graduate without needed skills and that they should be able to pass a competency test to receive a diploma.

High school students have had little incentive to perform well on the current standardized tests - Pennsylvania System of State Assessment (PSSA) - since the tests had no impact on their grades or futures, said Mark D. DiRocco, superintendent of the Lewisburg Area School District.

"The Keystone exams are a much more rational and student-centered approach in the design of an accountability system," DiRocco said.

The tests are tied to the "Common Core" standards, which is a voluntary initiative adopted by 45 states that establishes a single set of educational requirements for kindergarten through 12th grade in English, language arts, and mathematics.

Those standards were approved by the state Board of Education this spring. Gov. Corbett has said he is committed to ensuring they are in place by the start of the school year.

Richard Gusick, director of curriculum and instruction for the Tredyffrin-Easttown district, said students who did not score proficient on the PSSAs - which will be replaced by Keystones - went on to graduate from colleges such as Penn State, Temple, West Chester, and Rutgers. If passing the test had been a requirement, they may not have graduated, let alone gone to college.

"This is because some students, particularly those with test anxiety or learning differences, demonstrate understanding through less traditional means other than than high-stakes testing," Gusick said.

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman of Chester County, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said local districts would be on the hook for the cost of implementing the standards, estimated at $300 million statewide.

He called the plan "a charade" for "raising false hopes and not providing the resources to make those hopes a reality."

"We are on the verge of putting onto our schools the largest unfunded mandate in the last 50 years," said Dinniman, who has introduced legislation to block the standards from taking effect until financial concerns are resolved.

He also said that since the plan has been phased in, 60 percent of students failed Algebra I and Biology and 45 percent failed Literature. As many as 75 percent of students have had to retake the test.

Joseph J. O'Brien, executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, pointed out that Keystones will not provide new information. He predicted the more affluent districts will do substantially better than the poorer ones.

"Thus, we will spend a large amount of money we do not have to provide something we already know," he said.

Contact Kathy Boccella at, 610-313-8232 or @kathyboccella on Twitter.

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