Excerpted fromMarc Levy of The Associated Press
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania is moving to impose a two-year delay on the use of exams as a high school graduation requirement after a wave of criticism from educators and advocates for poorer communities that the requirement is unfair, unwieldy and unnecessary. Gov. Tom Wolf has said he will sign the legislation, which unanimously passed the Senate on Wednesday.
Under the bill, the requirement to show proficiency in Algebra 1, biology and literature would take effect in the 2018-19 academic year, rather than the next school year. Supporters of the graduation tests say the bill is designed to provide time for the state to develop a better backup option for students who fail the Keystone Exams. The exams are currently used to assess student learning, rather than as a requirement to graduate.
Many lawmakers would simply like to see the exams go away on grounds that they are fatally flawed. Those critics say the exams force educators to spend too much time preparing students for a test, rather than educating them, and giving poorer schools that lack a library, computers or up-to-date textbooks an impossible task that will result in waves of failures and dropouts.
The Keystone Exams and their use as a graduation requirement won approval from the state Board of Education in 2013 after six years of work on the policy. The exams were approved, despite heavy criticism at the time, along with tougher academic standards aligned with the national Common Core standards.
Senate Education Committee ChairmanLloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, insists that the Keystone Exams are appropriate and that accountability in schools is needed, but he acknowledged that the backup option needs work.
Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Joseph Roy applauded the decision. Bethlehem Area’s high schools saw especially low scores in algebra last year. At Freedom High, just a bit more than 30 percent of students scored “proficient” or “advanced.” At Liberty High, 28 percent scored proficient or advanced in algebra.
“The delay allows time to rethink our approach to Keystone Exams in light of the general consensus that we have gone overboard with high-stakes standardized testing,” Roy said.
Under the bill, the state Department of Education is being given six months to develop recommendations for an alternative to the Keystone Exams for students to demonstrate proficiency.
In Pennsylvania, students either must pass a test in each subject area or, if they fail the test twice, successfully complete a project under the guidance of an instructor that shows they understand it.
However, critics insist that school districts, particularly poorer ones, lacked the time, money and personnel to successfully administer alternative projects for students who fail the tests.