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High stakes testing arrives in PA

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Ways of tackling the drop-out crisis that raise awareness and engage youth and others in creative solutions:

Philly Student Union members cut a CD addressing the dropout crisis to raise attention to the issue and raise funds for a great organization whose 99% graduation rate is testimony enough of their success. Oh, and PSU did groundbreaking on the new West Philly school too. Check out Koby’s pitch below, listen to the CD, and donate to PSU here.

Ways of tackling the drop-out crisis that do anything but:

This month the state Board of Education approved new state graduation exams for all high school students in Pennsylvania.

The "Keystone Exams" had been rejected year after year by an overwhelming majority of school boards, education organizations, and school advocates. The exception? Both Mayor Nutter and School Chief Arlene Ackerman endorsed the idea. (Read this op-ed by a Delaware County school board official about some of the current reasons 95% of school board opposed graduation exams.)

The ten exams cover basic high school subjects like algebra and science. Students must pass the exams every year in order to pass their class and must pass six out of the ten exams in order to graduate. Students who don’t will be denied a high school diploma but the larger likelihood is that they’ll drop out if they fail a number of tests. This has been the trend in a number of states around the country, as documented by Fair Test. The exams go into effect in 2014.

As we know, it’s not a Pennsylvania project if there’s not huge amounts of money and financial contributions involved: $176 million to develop the exams and $31 million a year (borne by local districts) to administer them. Cost of increased drop out rates in a city that doesn’t need it: priceless.

Meanwhile, the Independent Regulatory and Review Commission that was supposed to independently analyze the tests has come under scrutiny for being – well not so independent. There’s some question of just how much IRRC members were wined and dined by lobbyists.

It’s also worth noting that last spring, the State Board of Education came under fire for signing a $201 million, seven-year contract with a Minnesota company to develop the exams, even though they hadn’t been approved at the time. The company had donated over $200,000 to Harrisburg politicians in the past two years.

And the state Attorney General is apparently looking into the decision to see whether the state Board of Ed may have overstepped its legal rights by changing the regulations – for example, they removed parents as a required body on the exam review panel.

Ed Secretary Gerald Zahorchak once described the exams as helping make a high school diploma "meaningful." But in a city where thousands of kids drop out every year, the most meaningful thing these tests seem to hold is a cash bonanza for testing companies while more and more kids get left out in the cold.

This piece was also posted on YoungPhillyPolitics.com.