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Local schools: Keystone Exam delay will help

Written by Daniel Walmer, Lebanon Daily News | Feb 9, 2016 6:00 PM

(Lebanon) -- State legislation that postponed a test-based graduation requirement will provide some relief for school districts struggling to meet mandates from Harrisburg, according to several local administrators.

The bill - unanimously passed by the state legislature and signed Feb. 3 by Governor Tom Wolf - delays the use of Keystone Exams in algebra, biology and literature as a graduation requirement for two years, until the class of 2018-19.

"I believe we were fully and well-prepared for the Keystone as a graduation requirement," said Michael Murphy, Lebanon School District's assistant to the superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and assessment, in an e-mail. "Certainly, any extension is welcome as we do more to build the best foundation for our students."

The district revised its English and biology curriculum and encouraged students to take all three subjects earlier in their high school careers so they have time for remedial education if they need to re-test, Murphy said.

Standardized Expectations 

The Keystone Exams were approved in 2009 as both a replacement for the Pennsylvania Standardized School Assessment test and an eventual new graduation requirement.

Pennsylvania Board of Education members said at the time that the exams would ensure a Pennsylvania high school graduate is prepared to succeed in college or the work force. However, some educators said they created an over-reliance on standardized tests for evaluating students.

Andrea Flocken, assistant to the superintendent at Annville-Cleona School District, said she's happy that the delay will allow Annville-Cleona to avoid a remedial curriculum focused around ensuring that students who struggled on a Keystone Exam pass the exam on a second attempt. Instead of relying on a one-time test, the district prefers to evaluate students in a variety of ways and measure growth throughout the year, she said.

"We have very high district expectations, and we believe our students will continue to meet those expectations," she said.

philip l. domenic.JPG

Philip L. Domencic, Cornwall-Lebanon School District superintendent. (Photo: Submitted to Lebanon Daily News)

Cornwall-Lebanon School District is still reviewing the impact of the new law, but it welcomes "any legislation that reduces mandates that are not fully funded," Superintendent Philip Domencic said in an e-mailed statement.

Project-based assessment

Wolf's office said the governor signed the delay because of relatively low percentages of students that are currently passing exams and difficulties with administering alternative paths to graduation for students that do not pass them.

The Board of Education permitted a project-based path to graduation to alleviate concerns that the Keystone Exams would negatively impact students who struggle to take tests. However, the state has provided limited details on what such assessments will look like.

That prompted a second provision in the legislation signed by Wolf, requiring the Pennsylvania Department of Education to examine alternative assessment options and provide a report to the state legislature within six months.

Several local administrators said the alternative assessments are a cause of concern because districts will be required to implement them and it is unclear what impact that will have on staffing.

"The delay will allow us to possibly feel immediate relief from the project-based assessment portion of the Keystone Exams, which has scheduling, staffing and budgetary concerns for us," Palmyra Area School District Superintendent Lisa Brown said in an e-mail.

The assessments create another unfunded mandate that disproportionately impacts urban school systems like Lebanon, Murphy said.

Elco Superintendent David Zuilkoski said the district will still need to assign staff to remediate current ninth-graders who don't pass the Keystone Exams on their first try, since the delay ends with the class of 2018-19. However, the delay does temporarily keep the district from needing to hire new staff to implement the project-based assessments.

Keystones still matter

The new legislation doesn't completely remove the relevance of Keystone Exams to districts, even in the short-term. Student results on the exams remain a substantial part of the School Performance Profiles used by the Department of Education to annually evaluate the performance and improvement of individual schools.

Given their use on school evaluations and the fact that they will still become graduation requirements for current ninth graders, Brown said Palmyra Area School District will "forge forward" with ensuring students are able to achieve proficient scores.

However, Northern Lebanon School District Superintendent Don Bell said he never believed - and still doesn't believe - the Keystone Exams or any other exam will ever be used as a high-stakes test for graduation. Recent changes in federal education law are designed to move away from one-size-fits-all testing, and the Keystone delay fits that trend, he said.

The district has never focused on teaching to a test, so it doesn't have to change course now that the Keystone Exams are postponed, Bell said.

"We are not a district that is trendy - we don't teach to a test or a trend," he said. "We haven't spent the years that other people have trying to put this stuff into place (to teach to the test) just to have somebody get rid of it."


This article is part of a content-sharing agreement between Lebanon Daily News and WITF. 

Published in Lebanon, News

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