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Senate of Pennsylvania
Session of 2017 - 2018 Regular Session


Posted: April 16, 2018 10:14 AM
From: Senator John H. Eichelberger, Jr. and Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman
To: All Senate members
Subject: Keystone Exam alternatives for graduation purposes

Last year, we introduced a bill to replace the Keystone Exams with other assessments for purposes of both accountability and graduation. As such, that bill would have also changed the assessments for teacher evaluations, and presented a series of complex issues. The Keystone Exams have since become a part of Pennsylvania’s state ESSA plan making a complete replacement not an option without federal approval. However, the issue of the Keystone Exam being a single, high stakes graduation requirement still remains. To solve that issue, we will be introducing legislation to present students with alternatives to the Keystones which do not place any new mandates on educators or school districts.

The Keystone Exams were first introduced in 2012 to provide accountability by requiring a demonstration, before a student could graduate, that the student was well positioned for life after high school. The exams also replaced the 11th grade PSSA assessments for federal accountability purposes under the No Child Left Behind Act, and for teacher evaluation purposes under Act 82 of 2012. Since then, issues have arisen about the advisability of a single high stakes test for graduation. Even the Department of Education (PDE) has stated that the "Keystone Exams are not a good predictor of college and career readiness.”

These growing concerns, and others, resulted in the passage of Act 1 of 2016 calling for a study on alternatives to the Keystones as a graduation requirement, and a moratorium on its usage as such. The report suggested four alternative pathways, one of which has already been adopted with regard to CTE students. (Another alternative, the development of a composite score, is actually not an alternative, but rather establishment of two different acceptable scores—one for graduation and one for federal accountability.) The other suggested alternatives involved replacing “failed” portions of the exam with score on other assessments or compiling “pieces of evidence” to prove a student is career ready.

Although the suggestions in the report have generated a lot of discussion, solutions have been difficult to come by as evidenced by the need to extend the moratorium last year. Resolution of the problem has been difficult to achieve because there are numerous complex, interconnected issues. First, the fact that the federal accountability and state graduation requirements are combined into one test is problematic. Measuring the acquisition of select academic concepts is not always a measure of readiness for life beyond high school. The CTE alternative was a prime example of this. Also, current graduation requirements beyond the Keystone Exam and career are contained in a patchwork of regulations which will need to be changed beyond mere reference in legislation.

Some argue that the Keystone Exam must remain the centerpiece of the graduation requirement, however, the results of the exam many times come late in a student’s career, i.e., Spring of 12th grade. This fact complicates the viability of proposed alternatives, in that students may be too late to the game for an alternative strategy. Further, the federal law demands a single assessment, and does not authorize pathways unique to individuals for accountability purposes, despite the fact that it might be best for students. If Pennsylvania wants to provide true career pathways for future readiness, it is probably best to divorce its graduation requirements from its federal exam.

It makes no sense to say that a student who received a letter of college acceptance or has scored high on the SAT must subjugate those accomplishments to the Keystone Exam or any select portion of it. It would be arrogant and harmful to view the Exam as a better judgment of career preparation than nationally recognized assessments, and to thereby refuse graduation to such children because they did not have a “piece of evidence” (or a high enough score on the SAT as opined by some unnamed department officials). Neither school districts nor students are looking for more bureaucracy and red tape.

If we are going to afford options to students, those options must be equally available to all students regardless of the economic circumstances of their family or their school district. It is basic common sense that a school district which has a ratio of one guidance counselor per a thousand students cannot be expected to provide the same quality of services as one whose ratio is 1/3 of that. Further, options must be objective, not subjective. Fortunately, with the wide availability of such alternatives, there is no reason to impose new mandates on schools, create new job titles, or to force more responsibilities and subjective judgment calls on already burdened teachers.

In light of the foregoing, we would propose a compromise to relieve students and school districts from the burden imposed by a single high stakes exam for graduation purposes. The legislation would do the following:
  • Not impose new mandates on school districts, especially those that lack the resources to comply
  • Not impose new burdens on teachers
  • Putting students first by providing alternative graduation requirements that are of value to the student even after high school
  • Allow for students who meet a composite score, within certain limitations, on the Keystone Exams to graduate
  • Allow for students to substitute completion of related dual enrollment, AP, or IB courses to substitute for scores on non-proficient portions of the keystone
  • Allow students to substitute for graduation purposes overall performance on nationally recognized assessments, regardless of scores on the Keystone Exam
  • Allow students who have been accepted into a registered apprenticeship or college to graduate, regardless of scores on the keystone Exams
  • Allow students with disabilities to graduate if their IEP plan has been followed
  • Eliminate project-based assessments
Of course, local grade and coursework requirements would still apply to all students for graduation purposes, and the current provisions as to CTE would still apply.

We invite you to join us in co-sponsoring this important legislation which will provide students with options that can be of benefit to them even beyond their high school years.

Introduced as SB1145