The idea was hatched during the Rendell administration as a way to increase accountability. The plan was to require that students pass an exam in order to graduate high school.
The idea was embraced by the Legislature and various education interest groups. Ten exams were supposed to be created, but only three were completed: algebra, literature and biology. Students began taking the tests in 2012 and the program was due to go into effect for the class of 2017.
A funny thing happened on the way to implementation. Many students could not pass.
Annual pass rates have been below 60 percent for more than half all district and charter schools around the state, with even lower pass rates among poorer students and students of color. "Passing" in this case means "Proficient," the students have shown a firm grasp of the content of the courses.
People began to grumble about the tests, and this year, the Legislature delayed implementation until 2019 and had the Department of Education conduct a policy review of the Keystone exams, as they are called.
To oversimplify, the department task force had two options:
One. Reassert that all students should be proficient in basic topics to be fully prepared to graduate. So, it is up to students, parents, teachers and other school professionals to double down on the Keystone.
Two. Assert that the failure rate is really no one's fault, and that the low pass rates are an indicator that standardized tests are a poor way to measure academic performance.
The task force voted for No. 2, and issued a report last week on how the state should move away from reliance on the Keystone and try other ways to measure student performance. It outlined three or four, including using others tests - such as the SAT and ACT as benchmarks - or using grades in class.
The state teachers union liked the report, so did the state school boards' association. Gov. Wolf is said to favor a step back from reliance on standardized tests. The task force report still must be approved by the Legislature.
So why aren't we smiling like everyone else? Because a retreat from the Keystones is a step away from accountability and has the potential to continuing the cycle where students are passed through high school, get a diploma and don't grasp the basics of math, reading and the sciences.
A word about standardized tests. No one likes them and we can all recite their shortcomings, but we're reminded of Winston Churchill's remarks about democracy: It is the worst form of government devised by man - until you consider all others.
Standardized tests are a fact of life. You need them to get into most colleges, to work in the post office, to become a police officer or a government employee. Private businesses use them to measure workers' skill levels and training needs.
Pennsylvania might find a way to water down the Keystone requirement, but the day will come when students will be handed a test to take in real life. And they are not pass/fail. Their performance is ranked, and only top scorers get hired or promoted.