Editorial: Keystone quagmire

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

The elephant in the room when discussing graduation rates is Pennsylvania’s Keystone exams. This year’s sophomores will have to pass tests in algebra, biology, and English to earn a diploma when requirements take effect in 2017. If they fail, they can repeat the test or try to pass a “performance-based assessment” that takes an estimated 10 hours to complete.

The District has estimated that only 22 percent of this year’s seniors would meet the new graduation standards. Even in high-performing districts, barely 70 percent of students are passing biology Keystones.

Unquestionably, we must ensure that a high school diploma actually means something is necessary. As districts push hard to improve graduation rates – and as administrators try to avoid the “failing school” label – pressure mounts to graduate students even if they haven’t met basic requirements. Beyond the horror stories of functionally illiterate, unemployable Philadelphia grads is the more widespread problem of students who should be college-ready but can’t place out of remedial community college classes.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a competency exam that identifies student weaknesses and helps teachers prepare them to improve. But experience with standardized tests in Pennsylvania is that they provide limited diagnostic information while effectively narrowing the curriculum. With everything riding on these three exams, other important subjects (social studies), and skills (writing, oral communication) may get ignored altogether.

The effort is fairly described as an unfunded mandate. Districts like Philadelphia already lack the resources they need to remediate students who are below grade level. Educators are still becoming familiar with the tougher standards and tests. How on earth can they be expected to provide the supports students will need to pass, or to complete an alternative assessment?

The clock is ticking toward 2017. The path we are on will be a punitive nightmare. The Wolf administration had better quickly take the current plan for Keystones back to the drawing board.