Keystone Exam to Replace PSSA in 2013

by Christopher Paslay

Although the PSSA will remain in elementary and middle schools, the Keystone Exam will replace the PSSA in high schools across the state of Pennsylvania starting in the spring of 2013.  

Updated 7/31/12:

Memo From:  THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA Office of Accountability:

The Pennsylvania Department of Education provided clarification yesterday (July 12, 2012) regarding the Keystone Exams.  The following memo outlines key details about the requirements for participation in these assessments and manner in which student performance on the Keystone Exams will impact determinations about Adequate Yearly Progress.  In addition, we will offer some curricular strategies to assist you and your team in planning support programs to assist 11th grade students in preparing for success on the Algebra I, Literature and Biology Keystone Exams.

Assessment of 11th Grade Students

  • ALL 11th graders will take the Keystone assessments in the following 3 subjects next year:  Algebra 1, Literature, and Biology.
  • The Algebra 1 and Literature scores will be used in the calculation of AYP for the high school.
  • Biology will NOT be used in the AYP calculation. However, the 11th graders are still required to take the Biology Keystone Exam to meet the participation requirement in NCLB that all students complete a science assessment during their high school years.

 Assessment of 9th and 10th Grade Students

  • All students in grades 9 and 10, enrolled in the Algebra 1, Literature (generally, English 2), or Biology courses are required to take the Keystone Exam in these subjects upon completion of the course(s).
  • If a student scores proficient or better in any subject, his/her score/s will be banked and count towards AYP calculations when he/she is in the 11th grade and he/she need not take the examination again in this/these subject(s).
  • If a student does not score proficient, he/she has multiple opportunities to re-take the examination(s). However, his/her Algebra 1 and Literature scores will not count for AYP calculations until the student is in the 11th grade.
  • If a student took the Keystones in Algebra 1 and/or Literature Exam(s) multiple times between grades 9-11, and never scored proficient or better, his/her best score will count towards the AYP calculation when he/she is in the 11th grade.

 Assessment of Students Graduating in 2017 and Beyond (8th graders in 2013)

  • Students MUST score proficient or better in all the three subjects (Algebra1, Literature, and Biology.) in order to graduate from high school.
  • They can do so in multiple attempts.
  • This is a state requirement.
  • After 2 unsuccessful attempts students will have the option of completing a project.

The parameters for this project have not been finalized yet.

Below is a previous post from May 19, 2012 (this information is no longer accurate and has been updated above):

Now that students across the state are starting to master the PSSA test (last school year, 77% of all children in grades K – 12 scored proficient or above in math and 73.5% scored proficient or above in reading), the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is doing what all political bodies do when they want to stay in control and keep one step ahead of the people: they are changing the test.

Starting in 2012 – 13, high school students will no longer be taking the PSSA.  The Keystone Exams, which will consist of tests covering Algebra I, Biology, and Literature, will be given instead.  Although no testing schedule has been finalized, it’s probable that the Philadelphia School District, as well as most districts in the state, will give the Algebra I exam in the spring of freshmen year and the Biology exam in the spring of sophomore year.  Per the state’s “recommendation,” Philadelphia will most likely give the Literature test during sophomore year as well.

This is a significant change from the way the PSSAs were administered at the high school level in the past.  Under the PSSA, math, reading, writing, and science tests were given to all students in their 11th grade year (although only math and reading counted for AYP under the federal No Child Left Behind Law).  Now, because Algebra I is routinely taken in 9th grade and Biology in 10th, the Keystone Exams will likely be given during those years. 

What doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, however, is giving the Literature test in 10th grade instead of 11th.  Although the PDE is only “recommending” that the Literature portion be given at the end of sophomore year, it appears as though Philadelphia School District officials are going to heed this advice.

Although I’ve continued to inquire as to why the state is “recommending” giving the Literature portion in 10th, I’ve been unable to find an adequate answer; none of the administrators I’ve spoken with have been able to get an answer from the state, either.  Unless the PDE is able to offer a meaningful rationale, the Philadelphia School District should seriously consider giving the exam in 11th grade.

Here are three reasons why:

1.  The Literature Exam is based on skills, not content.  In other words, the test isn’t limited to a specific period of literature covered, like World Literature (9th and 10th grade), American Lit (11th grade), or British Lit (12th grade).  Whether or not specific stories or novels (content) are covered doesn’t matter.  The assessment anchors and eligible content on the Keystone Literature Exam are skills based (analyze author’s purpose, make inferences and draw conclusions, identify figurative language, etc.), so the reasoning that applies to Algebra I and Biology doesn’t apply to Literature.  The test can be given in any of the first three years of high school, so why not give it in 11th grade when the students have had another year to learn the skills needed on the test?  

2.  The Literature Exam is vocabulary based.  Giving the exam in 11th grade will give students another year to broaden their vocabularies, and to learn and practice new words.   

3.  Giving the Literature Exam in 11th grade will stagger the exams.  Why not have students take one exam per year from 9th to 11th, rather than taking both the Biology and Literature test in 10th grade?  Staggering the tests will help teachers and schools focus more on curriculum rather than killing instruction for students by forcing 10th graders to double-up on test preparation for two subjects at once.

Perhaps the most concerning part of the Keystone Exam is the new state graduation requirement.  According to the talk coming from the PDE, starting in the year 2017, all public high school students in the state will have to pass all parts of the Keystone Exam in order to graduate.  This would include students with special needs, those who are truant and miss large blocks of instruction, impoverished students with limited home support, and those with other social and emotional ills.  What will happen to the students who fail to pass all portions of the Keystone Exam and as a result fail to graduate?  If they are retained, who is going to pay for the extra seats, materials, and resources?  The city of Philadelphia, with $472 million in delinquent property taxes?  Or the state, which has slashed Philadelphia’s education budget like some Samurai Warrior?    

As with No Child Left Behind, which promised that all children would score proficient or better on state tests in reading and math by 2014, the 2017 Keystone Exam graduation requirement is quite ambitious.  Mostly likely we will see waivers being granted to students and schools starting in 2017 (similar to what is happening now with NCLB), when a backlog of students across the state struggle to meet these . . . unrealistic? . . . standards.        

Of course, it is of the utmost importance to set high expectation for all children, which is why Philadelphia School District officials should seriously consider giving the Keystone Literature Exam in the 11th grade, or at least demand a meaningful explanation from the PDE as to why they are “recommending” it be given in sophomore year.

The Haves and Have Nots of State Exams

by Rainiel Guzmán

Not all students are required to take the PSSA exams.  Money and politics play a role. 

As the headwinds of standardized tests fast approach with all the anxiety and stress that announce their arrival—I have often wondered, are there students who may opt out of taking state mandated tests?  Believe it or not, some may.

Surely students who are learning English as a second language may opt out from taking state mandated tests. Unfortunately they cannot. ELL students are required to participate in standardized testing. Nonetheless, many states in recognition of the challenges ELL students confront exempt their test scores for the purposes of their school’s AYP status. Yet, the exemption is partial and limited.

In Pennsylvania, ELL students are excused from taking the Reading and Writing portions of the PSSA in their first year of schooling. However, they are required to participate in the Math and Science portions. Their scores are not a factor but their participation is a determinant in their school’s AYP status. One might ask, why then given this Byzantine rational is so much stress placed upon ELL students? 

Authoritative studies have demonstrated the timeframe required to acquire a second language. For example, students between 8 – 11 years old with 2 – 3 years of native language education take 5 – 7 years to test at grade level in English. Moreover, the formal education or lack of formal education prior to arriving to the United States is a major determinant in the acquisition of English as a second language.  Students with little or no formal schooling, who arrive before the age of eight, take 7 – 10 years to reach grade level norms in English language literacy.

These convoluted exemptions are married to an equally complex set of accommodations.  For example, ELL students may use a word-to-word dictionary as long as it does not provide definitions or illustrations. Likewise, its use is limited to the Math and Science tests yet it is not permitted for the Reading and Writing portions. Lost in this whirlwind of parameters is the fact that many of these exemptions and accommodations hinge greatly on the first year classification.

What happens to ELL students in their second year of schooling? They are required to take all of the tests portions. Enter the Byzantine rationale once again. The following is an excerpt from the PSSA Accommodations Guidelines:

“The USDE guidance also provides flexibility in determining who can be included in the ELL subgroup for purposes of making AYP determinations. Because ELL students exit the ELL subgroup once they attain English language proficiency, schools and districts may have difficulty demonstrating improvements on state assessments for these students. The USDE allows schools, districts, and states to include in the ELL subgroup those students who have exited anESL/bilingual education program within the past two years. AYP is determined using monitored students (former ELLs) if necessary.”

Let’s keep in mind the stress and anxiety that high-stakes tests inflect on native English students. Now try to imagine the levels of stress and anxiety in a student of English as a second language, especially those in their initial years of English language acquisition. Fortunately, exemptions do exist for some students from these levels of stress and anxiety. Yes, private, religious and home schooled children may opt out of high risk, high stress and high anxiety testing (20 U.S.C. § 7886 United States Code / § 7886. Private, religious, and home schools).

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Why are they exempt? you may ask. The answer is simple: private and religious schools generally operate under their own independent charter and more importantly do not receive public funds. These facts enable them to opt out of mandated state tests. Many private and religious schools opt out of state mandated assessments due to philosophical and pedagogic reasons as well. Their numbers are not to be dismissed.

In Pennsylvania there are 1,400 private schools. Nearly half of these are religiously affiliated; 530 Roman Catholic schools, 39 Jewish schools, 26 Friends schools, and 8 Episcopal schools. A uniting criterion among these schools is their belief that a child’s education should be individualized rather than standardized. Likewise, these schools cater to parents who seek out these programs and values for their children.              

I sincerely applaud these parents. However, I cannot ignore the present irony. The students with the greatest means are able to opt out. While the most vulnerable of students and with the fewest means are compelled to take assessments that ignore research and their humanity.                                                                                                                                       

As the headwinds of 2014 (100 percent proficiency under NCLB) fast approach with all the anxiety and stress that precede their arrival—I have often wondered as well, given that private and religious schools may be exempt from state mandated standardized tests and thus unencumbered with AYP, do they fall under the statutes of NCLB? The answer is simply, no. Surprised? Unfortunately, there is no exemption for your astonishment.      

Rainiel Guzman is a 2011 Lindback Distinguished Teacher Award winner.  He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University, and teaches art at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.