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After decade of debate, Pa. passes new graduation requirements

Written by Avi Wolfman-Arent/Keystone Crossroads | Oct 16, 2018 6:43 PM
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After much delay and consternation, Pennsylvania will change its high school graduation requirements.

But the change won't be as drastic as initially mapped out when state leaders first committed to revisions nearly a decade ago.

Rather than having to pass a set of exams, current freshmen will be eligible to graduate if they check off one of several boxes. Those boxes include SAT or ACT scores above a state-set threshold; an industry certification; a full-time job offer; proof of military enrollment; and acceptance to a four-year college.

Students will have to meet locally-determined grade requirements in each of the subjects tested on the Keystone Exams: algebra I, biology, and literature. Students can still pass those exams to get their diplomas or receive a composite score determined by Department of Education officials.

The Pennsylvania Senate passed this new framework unanimously Monday, and Gov. Tom Wolf quickly announced he would sign the bill.

This latest chapter caps nearly 10 years of delay and deliberation as state leaders struggled to revamp graduation requirements.

Back in 2010, the state implemented new regulations requiring all Pennsylvania seniors, beginning with the Class of 2017, to pass a trio of subject-area tests known as the Keystone Exams. Those unable to do so would have been eligible for remediation and a "project-based assessment" developed by the state Department of Education.

Many advocates worried -- and still worry -- the state's rising graduation rates obscured a troubling truth: Diploma-wielding Pennsylvanians weren't ready for college or the workforce.

"There are Pennsylvania students graduating who are simply not prepared and not ready for that next phase in their life," said Alex Halper, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

Many argued that districts, under pressure to slash dropout rates, were passing students along in order to ensure they graduated, thus diluting the value of high school diplomas and encouraging lax standards.

The exit-test requirements, they said, would peel away the false comfort of rising graduation numbers -- and ultimately ensure students left the K-12 system with skills they needed.

But a backlash quickly grew, both in Pennsylvania and other states tying their fortunes to exit exams.

"I think the trend is rooted in a couple of different issues that are going on," said Laura Jimenez, director of standards and accountability for the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank that supports raising high school graduation standards.

One of the issues, Jimenez said, was broader dissatisfaction with standardized testing. In other cases, parents, teachers, and students took specific exception with graduation tests they felt weren't well aligned with curriculum.

In Pennsylvania, there was also budding evidence that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of students weren't going to pass the Keystone exams, forcing districts to spend money on costly remediation and alternative graduation tests.

Some say the prospect of mass failure combined with general testing backlash to create a powerful anti-Keystone coalition.

"I think those two forces combined led to a situation where everybody wanted to rethink it," said Stephen DeMaura, executive director of Excellent Schools PA, a lobbying group that supports tougher graduation requirements.

Political tides started to turn against the Keystone exams as the deadline to install them drew closer. Lawmakers pushed the implementation date from 2017 to 2019 to 2020 as story after story after story after story after story after story after story after story chronicled the slow death of the original state plan.

Now, longtime opponents of the Keystone exams, including state Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester County, are claiming victory.

"I'm delighted. And it only took 10 years," Dinniman said jokingly Tuesday. "But we did get it accomplished."

Dinniman and his allies believe tests alone can't sufficiently measure competency or world-readiness. Schools should create well-rounded citizens and good problem solvers, Dinniman said, not merely good test-takers.

"This notion that every student learns the same way, this notion that there's one set of skills, which is crucial to success, is simply not the reality," Dinniman said.

Even those fighting to raise standards mostly support this latest change, saying it's a good compromise that will still require students to go further than simply passing their classes. But many believe the ultimate success of this measure will depend on state and district leaders using their leeway to set rigorous benchmarks rather than using it to pry open loopholes.

DeMaura said his group fought to get rid of a provision that would have awarded a diploma to any student accepted into community college, noting that open enrollment practices at many community colleges would have made this standard "nothing more than paperwork."

He does think the multiple-pathways approach, if overseen correctly, can help ensure students graduate ready for the challenges ahead.

"While standardized testing was a means to higher standards and expectations, I don't think they need to be the only metric or measure that we're using," said DeMaura.

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