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Philly Keystone results show big need for improvement

The tests are part of the state's new graduation requirement.

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

Beginning with the class of 2017 — this year’s sophomores — high school students will have to pass three Keystone Exams before they can don caps and gowns for graduation.

Philadelphia’s scores for the last school year, the second time the tests were given, indicate that the vast majority of schools have a long way to go if most of their students are to graduate by passing the test.

In some city schools, pass rates are in the single digits and low double-digits for all three subjects — Algebra I, Literature, and Biology. Biology scores were the lowest; in only seven schools did at least half the students pass the biology exam. Pass rates were low, even in some highly selective schools.

Statewide results for 2014 Keystones have not been released yet by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, so no statewide comparison is available. But 2013 Keystone pass rates were low statewide — as low as 45 percent on the Biology portion.

Keystone results from 2014 for District schools were posted earlier this month on the School District website. Results for other individual Pennsylvania schools are available only via the state’s School Performance Profile. A state spokesperson said the statewide results would be released no later than Dec. 19.

The new exam system does allow students, in lieu of passing the tests, to complete a different, project-based assessment. And students are permitted to take the tests as many times as they need to in order to pass.

The new graduation requirements are a factor in a new lawsuit alleging that the state is not providing adequate resources to provide each student with a "thorough and efficient" education. In the past, such lawsuits were dismissed, partly because there was no clear definition of what a "thorough and efficient" education was.

There is also opposition to the Keystone graduation requirements in the legislature, among school districts, and from education advocates.

After Pennsylvania received a waiver from No Child Left Behind, it adopted a new set of academic standards and revamped how it assesses the performance of its schools, students, and educators. Starting with the 2012-13 year results, the state replaced the NCLB-required "adequate yearly progress" rating system with the School Performance Profile as the school accountability measure.

The Keystone exams were a critical piece of that overhaul. The tests, which have been aligned to the Pennsylvania Core Standards (the state’s version of the controversial Common Core standards), are said to be more rigorous and challenging than the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests.

Both PSSA and Keystone scores continue to weigh heavily into a school’s rating by the state, though they are no longer the sole basis for triggering interventions. And for the first time, students’ test score growth will be used to evaluate teachers’ performance.

Below are the results for the Keystone exams in all three subjects. Students can take the test at any point after they have taken the course. David Limm

@limmdavid David is a former online editor of the Notebook.

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