Senate committee votes to delay Keystone Exams

The Senate Education Committee Tuesday unanimously approved legislation to delay the graduation requirement associated with the Keystone Exams for two years.

“This marks a crucial first step in reevaluating and rolling back the make-or-break graduation exams that were put in place by the previous administration,” Sen. Andy Dinniman said. “We said then that standards without the resources to support them were not only unfair to students, but also put an unmanageable financial burden on school districts. Today we have united to ensure that our message is heard loud and clear and that the legislature reasserts its role in the process.”

Under current law, high school students beginning with the class of 2017 (rising juniors) will have to pass Keystone Exams in three subject areas (Algebra I, Biology and Language Arts) in order to earn a diploma. While the three exams are required by the federal government for evaluative purposes, education officials in the previous administration arbitrarily tied them to high school graduation.

Senate Bill 880 calls for delaying the requirement until the 2018-2019 school year, meaning it would affect incoming freshmen. The bill aims to give the Legislature additional time to resolve some of the unanticipated consequences of the Keystones implementation, including how to effectively administer and fund project-based assessments for students who do not pass the exams.

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Under current law, students who fail the exams twice are entitled to supplemental instruction and have the option of taking a project-based assessment under a teacher’s supervision. However, the Department of Education has yet to provide adequate instruction or resources to school districts on how to staff the project-based assessments.

Senate Bill 880 was introduced by Sen. Lloyd Smucker, majority chairman of the committee and co-sponsored by Dinniman, the minority chairman. It will now go to the Senate floor for consideration.

In his comments, Smucker highlighted Dinniman’s record of leadership in addressing issues with the Keystones. He also said he had become “convinced over the past six months that there are unintended consequences” related to the exams as graduation requirements.

In April, Dinniman introduced his own legislation, Senate Bill 838, calling for a moratorium on the use of the Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement while the Basic Education Funding Commission continues its efforts to make recommendations to the General Assembly for a fair funding formula. Although that bill gained momentum, including support from 30 co-sponsors, Dinniman threw his support behind Senate Bill 880 today, saying it currently represents the best vehicle to put the graduation requirements on hold and give the legislature a chance to develop quality, educationally-sound assessments.

“While I would have liked to see the use of high-stakes graduation exams completely eliminated in our schools, legislatively that was not possible,” he said. “Regardless, I am proud to have Senate Bill 838 linked with Senate Bill 880, as we now have a golden opportunity to return the focus of education to teaching instead of testing. I look forward to its passage in the Senate and expect there to be strong support in the House.”

Dinniman who began leading the opposition to the Keystone Graduation Exams three years ago said it was rewarding to see members from both sides of the aisle support the legislation for the good of students, families and schools.

“I voted against the Keystone Graduation Exams as a member of the state Board of Education back in 2012,” Dinniman said. “Today, we have a strong, core group of bipartisan supporters from across the Commonwealth. Every major education association, PSBA, PASA and PSEA, has come out in favor of rolling back the graduation requirements. We are singing in unison and our message is getting heard.”