Keystone exams: Questions and answers

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook is examining standardized testing this month. The topic is the focus of our upcoming December-January edition.

What are the Keystone exams?

In 2009, the Pennsylvania State Board of Education voted to establish statewide end-of-course exams in order to set uniform benchmarks for key academic subjects. The tests began in 2011. The tested subjects are Algebra 1, Biology, and Literature.

Seven other subjects were to be added later. Civics & Government and English Composition are supposed to be tested next, but no rollout schedule has been set.

Originally, test scores were to count for at least 30 percent of a student’s final grade for each subject; it was left to each school board to determine whether the exam would be a graduation requirement, but if not, districts would have to develop a local test that met state approval.

In 2013, the 30 percent requirement was dropped, but passing the Algebra, Biology and Literature Keystones or an equivalent local or national exam became a graduation requirement, starting in the 2016-17 school year.

Who put together the Keystones?

The tests were developed by Data Recognition Corp., which also developed the PSSA tests that are used by the state in the lower grades. DRC has developed tests in a dozen other states as well.

DRC submits potential test questions to panels of Pennsylvania educators and to the Pennsylvania Department of Education for review.

Who takes the Keystones and when?

The Keystone exams are mainly for high school students, though some students who study Algebra 1 in the lower grades take them as well. The tests are administered in all public schools that offer Algebra 1, Literature, and Biology courses. They are usually given at or near the end of those courses, though they can be taken without enrolling in the course. They are offered in the winter, spring and summer of each school year.

Students with high scores on International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Algebra, Biology or Literature courses can skip taking the Keystone test in that subject.

Because passing the exam is becoming a requirement for high school graduation, students who do not pass it the first time must retake it until they pass or until they successfully complete an alternate, project-based assessment. Students must take the exams for the first time by the end of their junior year.

Special education students who have an Individualized Education Program that specifically says they should not take the test are excused. Parents may opt their children out, but only for religious reasons.

What are they like?

All three tests have two modules, or sections, that are given separately, either online or in paper and pencil format. The Algebra and Literature tests have 23 multiple-choice questions and four open-ended response questions in each module. The Biology test has 32 multiple-choice questions and four open-ended questions.

The Algebra test modules are Operations and Linear Equations & Inequalities in the first and Linear Functions and Data Organizations in the second.
The Biology test modules are Cells and Cell Processes and Continuity and Unity of Life. The Literature modules test the comprehension of fiction and nonfiction passages.

How much time do they take?

The tests are untimed. Each of the two modules is administered separately, usually taking 60-90 minutes to complete. The estimated time for most students to take one whole test is two to three hours.

How are results used?

Starting with the senior class of 2017, most students must pass all three Keystone exams in order to graduate. The tests replaced the 11th-grade PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) tests that have been used to meet No Child Left Behind requirements. Along with a numerical score, results are classified as Advanced, Proficient, Basic, or Below Basic, with the first two considered acceptable scores. The performance level appears on students’ transcripts.

The test results are used as a key component of the state’s School Performance Profile, a rating system for schools. Results are also one element used in required annual teacher evaluation ratings.

What happens if someone doesn’t pass?

Any student whose overall score is below Proficient must take it again. Schools are required to give students supplemental instruction before a student takes the test again. There is no limit to how many times a student can retake a Keystone Exam.

What’s the alternative assessment?

Starting in the 2016-17 school year, graduating seniors who have not scored Proficient on a Keystone exam must participate in Project Based Assessment (PBA) for that subject. Successfully completing the PBA fulfills the graduation requirement.

Each PBA is a series of activities based on the same subject matter as the corresponding Keystone Exam. They are developed by groups of Pennsylvania educators, and only one will be available each year for each subject module. A tutor and test administrator (which can be the same person) oversees each student’s work on the PBA, which takes an estimated 8-10 weeks to complete and must be finished by January 2017. Completed PBAs are graded by panels set up by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

What is the Keystone pass rate statewide and in Philly?

Statewide in 2015, about 73 percent of students scored Proficient or above on the Literature Keystone. Only 54 percent of students designated as “historically underperforming” – those who were economically disadvantaged, English Language learners, or special education students – scored Proficient or above.

On the Algebra Keystone, 64 percent of all students scored Proficient or above and 44 percent of historically underperforming students did so. On the Biology Keystone, 59 percent of all state students were Proficient or above and 37 percent of historically underperforming students met the mark.

In Philadelphia, scores were lower than the statewide averages and there were wide racial gaps. For example, in Algebra, 38 percent of all students scored Proficient or above. White students had a 57 percent pass rate, while 26 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of African Americans were Proficient or better.

What is controversial about requiring passing scores for graduation?

Keystone advocates say that when graduation requirements are based on local tests that vary in rigor from district to district, there is no assurance that a high school diploma means students are able to meet the demands of college and the workplace. Many employers say that high school graduates come to them without the basics they need to get or hold down a job. Many students starting college need to take remedial courses. The Keystone exams are supposed to remedy those situations, setting a rigorous, uniform, statewide graduation standard in core subjects.

Proponents add that those who fail the tests get supplemental help and the PBA will take care of those who simply are not good test-takers. Also, a student can graduate if their IEP says they should not take the Keystones, and a district can grant waivers allowing a student to graduate if specific circumstances dictate.

Critics say that a few high-stakes tests should not determine whether students can graduate and go on to good jobs or college. They argue that the tests do not fairly measure all students’ abilities and that some districts may lack enough qualified teachers or other resources to prepare students for the exams. They say that the tests will lead to a higher dropout rate and more students denied the chance to even try for good jobs and a college education. They point out that the failure rate for students retaking the test is very high; in 2013-14, for example, only 21 percent of Algebra re-takers passed, 14 percent passed in Biology and 23 percent passed in Literature. Legislation is under consideration in Harrisburg that would change the law requiring students to pass the Keystones.

Have Keystones led to curriculum changes?

The Keystone tests are based on Pennsylvania Core Standards, which are closely related to national Common Core standards that have been adopted by 42 states. All these standards are said to be more rigorous and difficult than most state standards were before their adoption. Pennsylvania adopted the Common Core standards in 2010 and amended them in 2014. Districts generally have been revising their curriculum to reflect the new standards and prepare students better for the exams.