Parents, educators, legislators air concerns, issues over Keystone Exams

Sen. Andy Dinniman

RADNOR — A hearing on Keystone Exams presided over by state Sens. Mike Folmer and Andy Dinniman stretched on for more than four hours Monday as testimony came from a variety of people with different ties to education in Pennsylvania.

Many of the concerns and much of the debate surrounded a few points, but two were agreed upon by the majority of those present as the main issues: The possible requirement of scoring proficiently on the standardized Keystone Exams for graduation from high school and what the implementation of the tests and associated remediation for students who don’t pass them might cost.

“The school districts of southeast Pennsylvania are united in their opposition to these graduation requirements,” Dinniman (D-19), the minority chairman for the state Senate’s education committee said afterward.

Folmer (R-48) is the majority chairman of the Senate education committee. He essentially ran the hearing, which took place in the auditorium of Valley Forge Middle School, which falls within the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District.

Tracy Karwoski, a parent and vice president of the Garnet Valley School Board in Delaware County, said her daughter, whose weighted GPA stands at 3.987, isn’t a great standardized test taker and is very concerned by them.

Karwoski’s daughter took the algebra I exam, one of three proposed, and has not scored proficiently on one yet.

“It’s painful to hear a child ask repeatedly if she’s stupid. Again, from a student with a 3.987 GPA,” Karwoski said.

In addition to algebra I, an exam for biology was rolled out this year. Literature is also slated as an exam. Two other exams are possibly in development, including one for government and civics.

For the most part, 11th grade students took the exams this past school year, but a major concern from those opposed to the testing is that many of these students had the courses they’re being tested on as early as eighth grade.

Dinniman endorsed having the Keystones count toward one-third of the grade of the course for which they’re given.

“The one-third exam at the end was simply like a final in the class so you get every kid through and you don’t need a test taken separately. That doesn’t require a tremendous amount of new resources for the school,” Dinniman said. “Now, if someone needs remediation after the course is completed, someone has to pay that teacher to remediate not once but twice. And someone also has to pay for that project assessment to be done.”

He said all sides agreed to that method before changes were made by the Department of Education this spring.

Many believe that the testing will display something already widely believed — that districts with more money in more affluent areas will have higher proficiency scores than those with tighter budgets in traditionally less affluent areas.

“There is one number that will predict standardized testing results, that is the ZIP code,” said Gerald Oleksiak, vice president of the state teachers’ union, Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Karen Cruickshank, a school board member and parent in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, wanted to establish some kind of evaluation that would display a “composite” of a student’s learning and abilities.

“High-stakes testing doesn’t do that,” she said.

Mark DiRocco, superintendent of the Lewisburg Area School District, said he believes the Keystones can be “effective” and make more sense than the previous PSSA exams.

“I think it’s important that as we go through this transition with Keystones, that we take our time and do this right,” he said, though he cautioned that care should be taken that the exams are “measuring what they should be measuring.”

Joan Benso, the executive director of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, believe the exams would help students entering college. Benso said 44,000 students who graduated last year in Pennsylvania had to take remediation courses in college and were not able to start getting college credit right away. She believes the Keystone Exams will make sure Pennsylvania students are prepared for college.

As far as whether the testing is really determined by the funding a district receives, Benso said, “Some of that is about money and some of that is about expectations.”

Dinniman, however, argued that Benso’s organization did not take into account the well-being of students from the less affluent districts or those with special education needs.

“I was an individual who would fail these exams,” Dinniman said, apologizing for getting a little heated. “I fear the metrication of education.”

By having students stay longer in schools, Dinniman believes it will cause more of a financial strife for struggling districts such as the Philadelphia Public School District. Additionally, he said parents of students in lower income areas might not be able to support a student staying in school longer.

“My sense is it’s better for a student of the Philadelphia School District to be told, ‘Take a little longer to graduate,’” so they might be ready for post-high school, Benso said.

Eventually Carolyn Dumaresq, of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and Karen Molchanow, executive director of the state’s board of education took part in a panel. Dumaresq, at the time of the panel, was the deputy secretary of the department of education.

Later in the day, with the resignation of Wiliam Harner, she was named to acting secretary.

Dumaresq addressed some concerns, saying there is a 10 percent exception built in to the exams for those who don’t make proficiency. Additionally, she said there are waivers that can be granted by a school district’s “chief administrator,” so high-achieving children like Karwoski’s daughter could graduate.

She said there are other tests that could be substituted for the Keystone Exams, such as advanced placement tests, international baccalaureate courses or other similar tests.

Dinniman requested any data the Department of Education might have on test results this year, which he said he and other members of the Senate’s education committee have not received, to help determine how many students might need remediation. That way, he said, the cost of it might be estimated before action is taken. Dumaresq said she’d work with Dinniman on that.

A vote by the state board of education on whether or not to implement the Keystone Exams as is is expected for Sept. 12, according to Molchanow. Another hearing is scheduled for Thursday at the capital, which Folmer will preside over.

Folmer expressed hopefulness at the close of the hearing that any changes that do come about are not just reactionary.

“I’m just hoping that we’re not just changing the tires but picking up the nails from the road as we move forward,” he said.

Dinniman felt the hearing was productive.

“It gave the committee an opportunity of dialogue with the department (of education) and the state board (of education),” Dinniman said. “It is my hope that in the weeks ahead, we will reach a compromise and while Keystones will be given, they will not initially be for graduation requirements and we can debate out whether it’s better to have it as one-third of the course grade, which was the original design that everyone agreed on, where we got the compromise or whether it has to be a graduation requirement.”

“It gave me a lot of things to think about on the way home,” Dumaresq said.

Dinniman also said he would work to remove a provision that would put a notation on a student’s transcript of whether they graduated by passing the Keystones or if they passed through a project waiver. He called such a notation a “scarlet letter.”

Follow Frank Otto on Twitter @fottojourno.