The PSSA and Keystone exams: The basics

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

What are the PSSAs and the Keystones?

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) launched the PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) in 1992. They are standardized tests administered annually and are based on state standards for what students should know and be able to do at their grade level.

The Keystxones began in 2011, two years after the state Board of Education voted to establish end-of-course exams that set uniform benchmarks for key academic subjects. The tested subjects are Algebra I, Biology, and Literature.

Who wrote these tests?

Both tests are developed and scored by the Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp., which has worked in at least 12 states. The state sets the “cut scores” for the PSSA to determine proficiency levels and reviews potential Keystone questions.

Who decides how the tests are administered?

The state Department of Education sets the rules and trains school personnel to ensure that this is done uniformly statewide. Districts determine how to prepare students for the tests.

Who takes these tests and when?

Pennsylvania students in grades 3 through 8 take the PSSA in English Language Arts and math. Fourth and 8th graders also take the Science & Technology exam. About 775,000 students in district schools, charters and cyber charters took the PSSA tests in 2015. They are administered in the spring.

The Keystone exams are given in high school, or in some cases to younger students who take Algebra I, Literature, and Biology, generally at the end of the course. They are offered in the winter, spring and summer.

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

Special education students can be exempted entirely, and parents may opt out their children, but only for religious reasons.

How many hours do they take to administer?

A 3rd grader will generally take the PSSA for a total of five hours and 40 minutes over the course of a week. The 4th-grade test, which includes science, takes more than eight hours. Keystone tests, each with one multiple-choice and one open-ended section, take two to three hours.

How are the test results used?

PDE says that PSSA scores help teachers pinpoint students who need additional help and determine how the curriculum and instruction could be improved. But scores are also used to evaluate teachers and schools. Teacher evaluations are based in part on the building’s overall scores and on PSSA performance in that teacher’s classroom. Results also factor into a school’s rating on the state’s School Performance Profile and influence district decisions about turnaround, closings, and charter renewals.

How do Keystones count for students?

If state law doesn’t change, starting with the class of 2017, students must pass all three Keystone exams in order to graduate. But they can take it as many times as they want, and schools must provide supplemental instruction.

Students can also complete the alternate Project Based Assessment for that subject to meet the graduation requirement. That is an 8- to 10-week series of activities based on the same subject matter as the exam developed by educators. They must be finished by January 2017 and will be graded by panels set up by PDE.

What are proficiency rates statewide?

In 2015, 60 percent of students scored Advanced or Proficient on the PSSA in English; less than 40 percent of students did so in math. In science, 68 percent scored Proficient or Advanced.

On the Keystones, in 2015, 73 percent of students statewide scored Proficient or above on the Literature test, but only 54 percent did so among those designated as “historically underperforming” – economically disadvantaged, English Language learners, or special education students.

On the Algebra I 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 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, White students had a 57 percent pass rate, compared to 26 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of African Americans.

The PSSA was made harder this year. Why?

To align it with new and more rigorous Pennsylvania Core Standards. Statewide results showed a 31-point average drop in math proficiency rates and a 9-point drop in English. State Education Secretary Pedro Rivera called the new PSSAs “fundamentally different,” cautioning against equating the drop in scores with a decline in student performance.

Were there other reasons for the drop in PSSA scores?

Teachers and districts complained that curriculum materials from the state were inadequate and late to arrive. Teachers also said that there were insufficient funds to help them prepare students to meet the higher standards.

In Philadelphia, greater demands on students, teacher layoffs, and school closings were also factors cited by Chris Shaffer, deputy chief of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. “We lost the capacity to deliver the implementation, from resources to professional development, parent outreach – the whole gamut,” Shaffer said.

What is controversial about these tests?

Supporters – including some civil rights groups – say they help maintain high standards for all students and necessary feedback for teachers, students, and parents.

But critics describe tests as a waste of time and destructive in their impact – narrowing the curriculum to tested subjects, squeezing out subjects like social studies and art, and, in some cases, leading to adult cheating because of their high-stakes nature. They say that results come too late to influence instruction and heavily reflect other factors, like poverty.

As for making the Keystones a graduation requirement, proponents say a rigorous, uniform, statewide standard in core subjects is crucial because a high school diploma today does not guarantee that a student has minimal knowledge and skills. Critics say that a few high-stakes tests should not deny students’ diplomas in an atmosphere of vast inequalities among schools and districts – including, often, shortages of qualified teachers. Citing the high failure rate, they say that the tests will lead to more dropouts and severely cramp students’ life chances.

Legislation is under consideration in Harrisburg that would change the requirement that students pass the Keystones in order to graduate.