A decade has passed since Pennsylvania first pitched the Keystone Exams as one more hurdle students must clear to graduate. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act required states to administer standardized tests, which students had to pass to prove that schools were teaching fundamental skills. Pennsylvania’s answer was the Keystones, and the state announced that a passing grade on these assessments would become a graduation requirement for the class of 2015.
That never happened. Amid criticism that strict testing pushed educators to “teach to the test" and unfairly branded underfunded or otherwise struggling schools as “failing," the federal government replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015 with a new law that rolled back the requirement for state-specific tests.
» READ MORE: Should Pa. dump its Keystone Exams?
Even so, Pennsylvania has stuck with the Keystones — and with the state government funding them. On July 10, the Office of the Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released a report noting that the state has paid a Minnesota company $425 million over the last decade for the Keystones, as well as a separate test for third through eighth graders, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Exams (PSSA).
DePasquale, who is planning a run for Congress, has a new pitch: Ditch the Keystones in favor of the SAT and ACT, tests commonly used for college admission. Funding high school students to take those tests, his report argues, will be cheaper than keeping the Keystones. But some state educators have reservations — including that the SATs, unlike the Keystones, skip science testing, and evidence that SAT performance is closely tied to wealth, a concern the College Board recently tried to address by proposing an “adversity score” component for the SAT.
» READ MORE: Pa. to delay Keystone graduation requirement
To hear from both sides of the debate, The Inquirer reached out to DePasquale and public school educators to hear their takes on what the future of standardized testing should look like in Pennsylvania.
‘We must begin the conversation now to avoid throwing millions of more dollars at a test that should be put out to pasture.’
It’s time to put Pennsylvania’s long-controversial Keystone Exams behind us and explore using a different test that can open new doors for students.
Pennsylvania high school students haven’t actually needed to take the Keystone Exams since 2015, when Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act. This change gave states greater control over which standardized test they administer to secondary students, and dropped the requirement for a state-specific test such as the Keystone Exams.
The Keystone Exams waste precious classroom time and energy. Teachers say they must “teach to” these tests and spend extra time working with students who do not fare well on pretest exams. This time could be better spent reinforcing key concepts that students will need for the rest of their lives.
Although all students must take the Keystone Exams, passing them is not — and has never been — a requirement to graduate. However, this is not widely known — resulting in students, educators, and parents dreading the exams. By contrast, the SAT and ACT, key metrics considered in college admissions, are viewed as an opportunity for students to realize their potential for life after high school.
Research has shown that providing the SAT to all students — particularly economically disadvantaged ones — increases the rate at which they attend post-secondary education.
For four years, Pennsylvania spent roughly $18 million per year on standardized tests that do nothing to measure students’ readiness for their next life stage. Between 2015 and 2021, the end of the next contract with Data Recognition Corporation (the vendor that creates, implements, and scores the tests), Pennsylvania will have spent nearly $100 million on unnecessary Keystone Exams.
We must seize the opportunity to save taxpayers money and to support parents and educators in empowering students to succeed. For less than what Pennsylvania spends on the Keystone Exams, it could instead pick up the tab for every student to take the PSAT or SAT each year of high school.
Using the SAT could save between $1.2 million and $4.5 million annually, and the SAT and ACT have more long-term value to students. Even if imperfect measures, SAT and ACT scores provide tangible evidence of a student’s preparedness for higher education, careers, or other callings.
Research has also shown that providing the SAT to all students — particularly economically disadvantaged ones — increases the rate at which they attend postsecondary education. For example, Coatesville School District in Chester County began providing the SAT to all 11th graders in 2016. Comparing 2015 to 2018, Coatesville saw an 18 percent increase in students going on to four-year colleges and a 33 percent increase in students going on to trade or technical schools.
Twelve other states have already replaced their state-specific standardized tests with the SAT or ACT, and they can provide a road map for Pennsylvania. The state Education Department must do some work to move this idea forward, such as ensuring the tests align with our state education standards and eventually garnering approval from the U.S. Department of Education. But we must begin the conversation now to avoid throwing millions of more dollars at a test that should be put out to pasture.
We don’t have time or money to waste on the failed experiments of the past. Pennsylvania should move toward adopting a nationally recognized test that can have a greater meaning in students’ lives.
Eugene A. DePasquale is Pennsylvania’s auditor general.
‘As a teacher, I’ve seen the dread that precedes any kind of standardized test.’
As a public schoolteacher — and a mother — it gives me pause to see a push to end Keystone exams. Keystone critics call the exams problematic, but think other tests are the solution. Putting aside the issue of replacing tests with tests, the replacements in question are the SAT and ACT: assessments with questionable validity and histories of bias against students of color and those living in poverty.
The Auditor General’s Office proposes that the state pick up the tab for students to take the SAT or ACT. That would cover at least first-round costs. But many students either need or choose to take these tests more than once to obtain a desired score, adding to families’ financial obligations with each assessment. For students seeking technical careers or trade jobs, the SAT and ACT serve no purpose. For students with learning disabilities or other specialized learning needs, they can create undue anxiety and frustration.
The goal of the Keystone Exams is to measure a student’s proficiency with the standards in Algebra I, literature, and biology that the state has set forth as important for Pennsylvanians to know. Neither the SAT nor the ACT aligns to state standards. Neither measures a student’s understanding of biology — unless, of course, the student wants to pay more to the College Board for a subject test. In terms of math, two-thirds of SAT math questions cover topics unrelated to Algebra I.
Even if the state covers the tests, it can’t compensate for the financial disparities — like the ability of some but not other families to afford extensive SAT prep classes — that lead to educational inequities.
As the mom of two recent high school graduates, I have lived the significant costs inherent in senior year. Applying for colleges, jobs, and trade schools requires time, effort, and money from families — many of whom do not have the extra resources to make this process comfortable, or even feasible. Even if the state covers the test itself, it can’t compensate for the financial disparities — like the ability of some but not other families to afford extensive SAT prep classes — that lead to educational inequities.
If the commonwealth is seeking alternatives to the Keystone Exams, perhaps it’s time for a more creative discussion. Schools, teachers, families, and students across Pennsylvania have ideas to make sure graduates leave school with knowledge, skills and, perhaps most importantly, respect for the work that they have done.
In the same way that the lieutenant governor has gone on a listening tour to hear Pennsylvanians’ views on legalizing marijuana, why not send the auditor general and the secretary of education on a tour to visit schools and ask stakeholders for ideas to replace the Keystones with a better system? Schools have already implemented a range of alternatives to demonstrate a student’s understanding of these important educational standards. Many schools employ senior capstone projects and written theses as better measures of proficiency. These types of assessments are not only more authentic and engaging for students, but also come at a significantly lower cost to schools, districts, and families.
As a teacher, I’ve seen both the excitement that comes from learning through projects and the dread that precedes any kind of standardized test. Recognizing that assessment and accountability matter, I believe that Pennsylvania has an opportunity to draw upon the innovative work schools are already doing to transform the statewide assessment system into a more equitable, richer, and family-friendly way to measure proficiency — and set up students for meaningful futures.
Nancy Ironside is a Philadelphia public schoolteacher.