HARRISBURG — As state law stands, Pennsylvania is scheduled to begin requiring students in two years to pass standardized Keystone examinations in order to graduate high school.
But with the signing of a new law Wednesday, students in career and technical education programs will be allowed to demonstrate their readiness for a diploma in other ways.
"There are so many career pathways that exist within the economy of Pennsylvania," said Rep. Mike Tobash, (R-Schuylkill), one of the bill's sponsors. "There should be more educational pathways, and this is just acknowledging that."
If students enrolled in career and technical education do not do well enough on the Keystone examinations in algebra 1, literature and biology, they will be permitted to graduate anyway if they meet school district requirements in those subjects.
That's so long as the student also attains an industry-based competency certification or shows they are likely to succeed on an industry-based competency test or are ready for "continued meaningful engagement" in their program of study.
The future of the Keystone exams more broadly has been a topic of discussion in the General Assembly. The graduation requirement had been scheduled to take effect for the class of 2017, but legislators postponed that until 2019. A bill in the Senate proposes eliminating the exams altogether.
Under current law, once it takes effect, students who fail to score "proficient" on a Keystone exam twice, or once during 12th grade, could graduate by completing a substitute known as a project-based assessment.
The legislation for students in career and technical education provoked none of the partisan rancor often on display at the Capitol. Both the House and the Senate passed the bill unanimously. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed it into law at a ceremony that included Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai, the legislation's prime sponsor.
"Our students in career and technical education will be able to use skills they've learned in career and job readiness programs to demonstrate the depth of their knowledge, rather than an exam that does not reflect the education they've received or the career they're going into," Wolf said.
Kurt Kiefer, administrative director of the Northern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, said in an interview he had feared that students who did not pass the Keystone exams would have been pulled from their vocational studies in order to do remedial academic work.
The center offers programs in auto mechanics, carpentry, computer technology, cosmetology, culinary arts, health occupations and welding, among other fields.
In some of the fields, the workforce is aging, Kiefer said.
"If we're trying to create a new working class, or a skilled labor class, and 50 percent of them have to go back to take academic classes, it really wasn't a very good formula for success for the state," he said.
The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry supports alternative graduation requirements for career and technical students, said Alex Halper, director of government affairs.
"We do hope that once this law is implemented, it's not misused by school districts to allow any students to move on without attaining a level of proficiency that is necessary to succeed in career or higher education or whatever paths the student chooses," he said.
The change won praise from the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state.
"With passage of this law, Gov. Wolf and state lawmakers have recognized what teachers serving students in career and technical education programs have been saying for a long time," PSEA President Jerry Oleksiak said in a statement. "Graduation decisions should be based upon students' entire academic records, rather than the results of a single standardized test."