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The Keystone tests are coming in January

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

Ready or not (and let’s put the emphasis on not), school districts, including Philadelphia’s, are gearing up to implement a new set of standardized tests called the Keystone Exams, which are replacing the 11th-grade PSSAs.

Some districts will administer the tests beginning this week; Philadelphia and other districts will do their testing in mid-January.

And no one, apparently, has confidence in making a strong showing this first go-around.

“There is a lot of concern out there. It’s all new, and schools are trying to figure out what needs to be emphasized in the classroom,” said Jane Wilburne, associate professor of math education at Penn State – Harrisburg and an expert on assessments.

Students who participated in a statewide pilot test of the Keystones last year fared poorly, with less than 39 percent of students scoring proficient or better in algebra, 36 percent in biology and 50 percent in literature. Those results were significantly weaker than how students fared statewide on the 11th-grade math and reading PSSAs that year.

The testing plan calls for all 11th graders to take the first round of the tests in Algebra I, biology and literature. Results will be used to calculate whether schools have met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals under federal No Child Left Behind guidelines, just as the PSSAs formerly did.

Then, beginning in spring 2013, the Keystones will transition into exams that students take as they near completion of coursework in the subject being tested, though the teachers probably will be requiring final exams as well. Testing in Philadelphia is scheduled for mid-May.

Students typically will take the Algebra I Keystones their freshman year, biology and literature their sophomore year. Students not achieving proficiency will have multiple chances to retake the test, though after two unsuccessful attempts, students will have the option of doing a project.

The retake opportunities are important: Showing proficiency on the Keystones in the three subject areas will be a graduation requirement, starting with the cohort of students that is now in 8th grade and is slated to graduate in 2017.

Elliott Seif, a curriculum and assessment expert formerly with the Bucks County Intermediate Unit, characterizes the Keystones as eventually becoming “high-risk graduation exams” and has lambasted the state Board of Education for implementing them and eliminating the senior-year culminating project.

In Seif’s view, the tests will be burdensome, expensive to administer, redundant and result in students dropping out. “Students may pass an algebra, biology, and/or literature course, wind up with enough credits to graduate, and then not be able to graduate because they fail one or more Keystone exams. Other students may pass the exams, but fail the courses,” he wrote in comments to the board.

The exams, he said, “confuse test proficiency with course proficiency and experiences” and will not improve student graduate rates or success in college.

In the near term, one school official predicted “test fatigue” for both students and teachers.

“In concept, it’s an excellent, high-quality test. … [But] you have an academic target that’s increasing and a measurement that’s changing. It’s a new test with a new level of rigor and a new focus on subjects and [the state] is kind of giving it to us in midair,” Brian Bliss, a Solanco School District official, told the Lancaster County Intelligencer Journal.

Brian Cohen, math teacher at the Academy at Palumbo in South Philadelphia, raised concerns about the upcoming Keystones in remarks to the School Reform Commission. “If the material we’re testing on now [in benchmark assessments] is what we’ll be testing on the Keystones in May, I don’t think many algebra students can pass them,” Cohen said.

So it’s likely that Cohen will have to give a final exam. "I doubt the Keystone will match what I think makes sense in terms of algebra teaching and learning," Cohen said. "I don’t think it’s fair to give the Keystone as the final grade for my students.”

He predicted that Philadelphia scores and the state’s overall scores will fall precipitously.

There’s one more issue looming: a new state law that rates teachers partly on standardized test results.

“If I can’t get my students prepared for the Keystones,” he fretted, “I’ll just be out of a job.”

Freelancer Connie Langland writes about education issues in Philadelphia.