Capitolwire: On Keystone Exams, ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’ PDE secretary tells Senate lawmakers

By Christen Smith
Staff Reporter

HARRISBURG (March 30) — Senate lawmakers wondered aloud Monday whether Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget wastes $53.7 million on graduation exams considered unfair and ineffective by many in the Legislature.

And while he agrees Pennsylvania’s assessments — the Keystones, in particular — may carry too much weight, Acting Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera says superintendents across the state don’t want the General Assembly to turn back now.

“I agree with you in the sense that we’ve put reliance on testing for areas that testing should not be reliant upon,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee during a budget hearing Monday. “There’s a smarter way to assess and I don’t necessarily think what we are doing is the smartest way to assess students.”

Starting in 2017, high school seniors will be required to pass the Keystone Exams before graduating. Students will take tests in three subject areas: Algebra 1, Biology and Language Arts.

But the exams, coupled with the new Pennsylvania Core Standards adopted less than three years ago, have long been a source of debate in the General Assembly, with detractors on both sides of the aisle who agree the graduation requirement can be burdensome and a waste of time and money.

Rivera says, however, superintendents across the state have told him, regarding a reversal of the newly-mandated academic standards, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The problem is, he says, school districts have already spent money building curriculum around the Pennsylvania Core Standards and — as to quote testifiers from last month’s House Education Committee hearing regarding academic standards and assessments — another change would create expensive “policy whiplash. ”

“Assessments should be pure and clear,” Rivera said. “Assessments should be put in place to first benchmark what students know and then to assess what they’ve learned over the course of the year. And that should be it.”

Except, as Senate Education Committee Minority Chairman Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, was quick to point out Monday, the state’s graduation exams place students in poverty-stricken districts at a disadvantage.

“I believe that the system that has been established, the structure is going to fall by its own weight,” he told Rivera, noting that 108,000 students again failed the Keystones during the last testing window and will now be required to complete a project assessment.

The project assessment, lawmakers have argued, is costly and burdensome to students and school districts alike, due to additional staffing demands placed on districts to evaluate the projects once completed.

A teacher, Dinniman pointed out, isn’t “trusted” to properly grade the project-based assessment.

“Many of our schools don’t even have the textbooks on which these tests are based,” he said. “To me, structurally, it’s impossible.”

In an editorial posted on his website last month, Dinniman compared two schools: Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School and West Chester B. Reed Henderson High. Students at Overbrook, Dinniman says, use 11-year-old textbooks that “don’t cover the curriculum covered by the Keystones.” The school also closed its only lab and have no certified biology teachers on staff.

At Henderson, Dinniman says, every student receives a laptop for school and personal use with online access to take practice tests, as well as participates in weekly labs. The school district spent $300,000 on three biology specialists to teach at each of its three high schools to help prepare students for the graduation exams and “provide remediation for those who do not pass it the first time.”

Dinniman again mentioned Overbrook’s resource challenges during the hearing Monday.

“No one would, in the Legislature, would disagree about standards and no one would disagree about assessments, but we’ve created a system in which students who are not given the opportunity for learning are being punished through no fault of their own,” he said.

Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, complained the new academic standards force teachers to waste time preparing students for the tests, which factor into a teacher’s evaluation score and a school’s performance profile score.

“You’re not inspiring when you’re spending over 20 days teaching to the test,” he said. “These Keystone Exams … maybe they have some good, but I don’t know what that is … but we don’t need to spend over 20 days a year teaching to the test.”

Rivera says the department will continue revising the state’s assessment system and will not be making decisions on how to improve standards by themselves, but rather with the input of “key stakeholders.”