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.

Is city a scapegoat in cheating probe?

“The word is out: Philadelphia’s teachers and school administrators are cheaters. Or so state Department of Education officials believe, which is why their investigation into suspicious results on state standardized tests has been expanded to include 56 city schools.

But is the state treating all school districts equally? Or is it shining a spotlight on Philadelphia in an effort to downplay the hanky-panky taking place elsewhere in the state? . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Is city a scapegoat in cheating probe?”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

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.

State Has Double Standard When It Comes to Cheating on PSSA

by Christopher Paslay

The Pennsylvania Department of Education’s investigation into possible cheating on state tests has been less than transparent.  Its handling of the situation indicates a bias against Philadelphia public schools.    

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has a problem on its hands—cheating. Not just minor cheating, but cheating on a grand scale that brings into question the validity of state exams and the integrity of many highly regarded suburban districts. 

In July of 2009, a “Data Forensics Technical Report” flagged 39 districts and 10 charters across Pennsylvania (a total of 89 schools, 28 from Philadelphia) for having highly suspicious results on the 2009 PSSA exams.  According to the report, there was a 1 in 10,000 chance of these testing irregularities happening by accident.

This was troubling news for the state.  School districts like Pennsbury, Abington Heights, and Wallingford-Swarthmore were on the report, and this was not good.  The state handled this problem by burying the report and hoping it would go away; the PDE sat on it for two full years.  Then, in July of 2011, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook uncovered the report and blew the state’s cover.         

The news went viral.  Suddenly, the state was forced to address the problem of widespread cheating and the integrity of suburban schools, so State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis ordered that investigations be conducted at all 89 schools flagged for possible cheating on the 2009 forensic data report.  He also ordered a similar forensic audit of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA tests, with special attention being paid to Philadelphia.     

On August 15, 2011, the Philadelphia School District announced the results of its internal investigation and concluded that only 13 of the 28 schools listed on the 2009 forensic report warranted further inquiry.  The state ignored these findings.    

In September of 2011, the audits of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA exams were completed and delivered to the state.  PDE spokesperson Tim Eller confirmed this in an interview with the Notebook.  Interestingly, the state refused to release this information, even after the Notebook filed requests under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know law for the information; the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records denied the requests, arguing the audits were exempt from public disclosure because they were not part of a criminal investigation.           

In January of 2012, after additional requests for the results of the 2010 and 2011 PSSA audits, PDE spokesman Tim Eller changed course and wrote in an email to the Notebook that the “PDE does not have the [2010 and 2011] forensic audits.”  It was right around this time—January 12th, to be exact—that the state cleared 22 districts and six charters of cheating, announcing that no further inquiry was needed; Pennsbury, Abington Heights, and Wallingford-Swarthmore were all cleared.  The Philadelphia School District was not cleared, and no information regarding the decision was provided by the state.

In February, as the list of suburban schools to be investigated dwindled to almost nothing, the PDE widened its inquiry into cheating on the PSSA exams to include 50 Philadelphia School District schools.  This decision was based on the 2010 and 2011 forensic audits of the PSSA tests, which the state now apparently had in its possession, but which they still had not released to the public.  No data from these reports was given to the Philadelphia School District, either.

In late February, because of cheating allegations, the state announced its decision to prohibit school teachers from Philadelphia, Hazelton, and three charter schools from administering the upcoming PSSA exams to their own students.    

Nothing exposes the state’s double standard more than its decision to place PSAA proctoring restrictions primarily on Philadelphia. If the PDE truly wanted to crack down on possible cheating, they could have made it a state-wide mandate that all districts in the state be prohibited from allowing teachers to administer state exams to their own students.  Or, they could have placed this restriction on any district previously flagged for possible testing irregularities; at the very least, the state could have applied this mandate to the 15 school districts across the state—in addition to Philadelphia and Hazelton—that are still under investigation for cheating on the 2009 PSSA exams.

But the state did not do this.  Why?  First, the state would face too big an opposition from the above communities if they forced these districts to restructure their testing schedules and logistics two weeks before the 2012 PSSAs.  Second, and more importantly, it behooves the state to turn up the spotlight on Philadelphia public schools—and downplay the involvement of districts in the rest of the state—in regards to the PSSA cheating debacle. 

In other words, it’s good for the state to send the message that cheating isn’t widespread after all, that it’s primarily Philadelphia public schools and their teachers that can’t be trusted.  This is truly an injustice, being that 200 Philly public schools—80 percent of the district—have never been implicated in anything.

The lack of transparency displayed by the state is, quite frankly, outrageous.  How many schools have been flagged for suspicious testing results on the 2010 and 2011 PSSAs?  What suburban blue-blood districts are on the list?  Why haven’t these forensic audits been made public?   Why haven’t the internal district investigations of the 89 schools flagged for cheating on the 2009 PSSA been made public?  Why have some schools been cleared and why do others require further inquiry? 

A closer look at the actual PSSA “Data Forensics Technical Report” compiled by the Data Recognition Corporation in July of 2009 shows some interesting results.  For example, on the 11th grade PSSA, under the forensic category called AYP1 (which determines if the changes in test scores have improbably changed across years), Penn Wood High School registered 6 flags, but was cleared by the state.  Frankford and Northeast high schools had 5 flags, but were not cleared as of January.  Cheltenham, Connellsville, Pleasant Valley, Strath Haven, and Strawberry Mansion high schools all had 4 flags—and all were cleared by the state, save for Strawberry Mansion.

One of the most confusing “clearances” was that of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School—which had multiple flags across multiple grade levels (3 flags 5th grade, 3 flags 6th grade, 3 flags 7th grade, 3 flags 8th grade, 3 flags 11th grade).  Yet the state concluded there was no further inquiry needed into possible cheating.  This is quite surprising, considering instruction takes place at PA Cyber Charter at home and in cyberspace.    

The Pennsylvania Department of Education must be held accountable for their inconsistent handling of cheating on state tests.  Forensic audits of all PSSA exams must be made public, and clearances based on internal investigations must be adequately explained and justified.

Administering Standardized Tests Are Standard for Everyone—Except Philly

by Christopher Paslay

Although dozens of school districts across the state are under investigation for cheating, it appears the Pennsylvania Department of Education has singled out the Philadelphia School District for special treatment.    

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook writes:

“In the wake of concerns about cheating on state exams, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has prohibited Philadelphia teachers – but apparently not teachers in other districts across the state – from administering the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test to their own students.”

This stinks for three reasons:

  1. The Philadelphia School District is being singled out, despite the fact that numerous school districts across the state are under investigations for cheating.
  2. These special restrictions on Philadelphia schools violate the uniformity of the administration of the tests and therefore keep them from being genuinely standard.
  3. The fact that the state waited until two weeks before the tests to make this announcement is unacceptable.  The logistical planning and training for the administration of these tests has been going on for weeks.  Now, Philadelphia public schools will be forced to change plans and procedures, and this may very well result in unforeseen organizational issues that could compromise the efficiency of the testing environment.  Was the state not aware of these restrictions before now?

Philadelphia School District officials, and perhaps even Mayor Nutter, must bring these equity issues to the attention of the state as soon as possible.  The city must demand that its schools be treated fairly, and not allow the state to make-up rules as it goes along.

The mighty testing juggernaut

“There’s an old saying that weighing a cow doesn’t make it fatter. When it comes to educational testing in Pennsylvania, however, Gov. Corbett may beg to differ. His proposed 2012-13 budget calls for a 43 percent increase in funding for educational assessments, to $52 million, even as it keeps school funding generally flat and cuts spending on state-related universities.

The timing of this increase is interesting. Last year, a forensic audit of the 2009 state exams flagged 38 school districts and 10 charter schools for possible cheating; nearly half of them are still under investigation. This prompted state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis to order audits of the 2010 and 2011 tests and to require the Philadelphia School District, which had 28 schools flagged for suspicious results, to conduct an internal investigation. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “The mighty testing juggernaut.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

A Letter to Brian Armstead of the Philadelphia Education Fund

Dear Mr. Brian Armstead,


Thank you for writing a letter in response to my recent Inquirer commentary headlined “False goals for city schools”.  It’s good to know there are citizens like yourself who are concerned about the education of our city’s children.  I very much admire the work you do for urban youth in Philadelphia. 


Your letter was indeed earnest and heartfelt.  However, I think you misinterpreted the premise of my article, so I’d like to clarify some of my points so you can better understand them. 


First, you very boldly assume that I have low expectations for my students.  Obviously you’re a social worker and not a school teacher, so you can’t possibly comprehend how insulting that assumption actually is (it’s okay, I forgive you).    


But it’s not your insult that bothers me.  It’s the fact that I made it a clear point in my commentary to stress the importance of HIGH EXPECTATIONS, and how no teacher can afford to ever give up on a child.  If you go back and reread the article you will see the following lines: “Of course, despite varying ability levels in both academics and athletics, neither coaches nor teachers should give up on groups of children.  Educators must continue to set high expectations and challenge all students.” 


Did you miss this or purposely ignore it?  (And for the record, last year I was Swenson High School’s sole 11th grade English teacher, and I personally had a big hand in raising our 11th grade PSSA reading scores 15 full points.  How many city students do YOU teach?  How many percentage points did you raise their scores?)


Second, you say that I “error” in assuming that state tests are meant to find the average.  I never said this.  I said “grade level” is an arbitrary term.  I wrote, “If you define grade level according to what a student of average academic ability should be able to learn by a given point in his or her schooling, you’re ensuring that about half of all students will not be at grade level.”


In large groups of children (Philadelphia has 167,000 students), this is a mathematical certainty.  It has absolutely NOTHING to do with expectations.  Imagine how nonsensical it would be for a real estate agent to insist that ALL the homes in a particular neighborhood be above the average home price.       


Third, you misunderstand what state tests such as the PSSA measure.  Obviously they establish a “baseline or a floor” as you say, but this “floor” is not as basic as you and the public make it out to be.  High stakes standardized tests go way beyond rudimentary reading and math skills.  We’re not talking about kids simply being able to read the newspaper and do basic arithmetic to figure out their change in the grocery store.  To be proficient and on grade level as an 11th grader in PA means doing advanced algebra and geometry in math, and analyzing complex pieces of literature in reading.  I also explained this in the article.


Next:  I don’t hold it against you when you say that my comments “may represent the single biggest factor in why so many of our schools fail to educate our children”.  Again, you’re not a school teacher (and you don’t know me personally) so you have no idea how grossly offensive that statement is.  But I don’t take it personal.  It’s okay.  You’re just trying to help. 


As a writer and teacher of writing I’d like to make one final comment, and it’s about the concluding lines of your letter: “The state simply sets the bar,” you write, “it is up to all of us to do what we can to help our children get over that bar. And they can do it. The single biggest factor in their not achieving is the false belief that they can’t.”


This closing has a good prose rhythm and succeeds in packing real inspirational gusto.  However, it’s a tad banal and sing-song, not to mention ludicrous.  Everyone CAN’T do what they put their mind to.  If they could, half my students would be professional athletes and have multimillion dollar recording contracts.


It’s the teacher’s job to set HIGH EXPECTATIONS (did you catch it this time), but also pursue attainable goals in a multitude of careers, not just those tied to advanced reading and math.  As director of civic engagement for the Philadelphia Education Fund, it might behoove you to focus more of your attention on the real and less on the romantic.




Christopher Paslay

English Teacher