This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Furness High School senior Xiuying Zhang has an artistic gift. The vibrant colors and nuanced shadows of her paintings and illustrations make her classical Asian motifs sing.
In the fall, she’ll attend the University of the Arts, where she’ll take the next step toward her dream of becoming a professional illustrator.
If this were 2017, though, it’s highly likely she would not be graduating high school.
Why? Because she couldn’t pass state Keystone exams in algebra, literature and biology.
"First year I try really hard, but I did not pass. I almost passed it," she said, with a thick Cantonese accent. "But I didn’t make it."
Zhang moved to Philadelphia from Hong Kong three years ago. She’s made steady gains in learning English, but not enough to score as proficient on a literature test. Biology, though, has given her the most trouble.
"I don’t know how to do it," she said. "I’m not good at biology."
Pennsylvania doesn’t currently have a standardized graduation test. Students graduate from high school by completing a set amount of coursework: four years of English; three each of math, science and social studies; two of arts or humanities; one of health and physical education; and five additional elective courses in subjects such as music, computers and foreign language.
Within these guidelines, the state’s 500 school districts have autonomy to evaluate student performance and decide who earns a diploma. The state’s graduation rate now sits at 86 percent.
But this will all soon change.
Starting with the Class of 2017 – this year’s sophomores – Pennsylvania students will need to pass standardized tests in literature, algebra, and biology in order to earn diplomas.
Lawmakers have dubbed the tests the "Keystone exams," and they are aligned with the PA Core Standards, the state’s version of Common Core. They’ve been administered since the 2012-13 school year, but the results, so far, haven’t affected students.
The looming changes, though, are causing concerns.
Zhang’s struggles with biology are mirrored elsewhere throughout the state.
Last year, just 54 percent of the state’s high-schoolers scored well enough on the biology exam to pass.
Although scores were most dismal in the state’s poor, urban centers, many posh suburban districts also have reason to be wary. In Lower Merion, a district on suburban Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line, the high school graduation rate is 96 percent, but just 71 percent passed the biology exam last year.
If students cannot pass one of the exams, they must take remedial coursework that prepares them to complete a computer-based project assessment. An independent panel will evaluate these on a pass/fail basis. Students are to work with tutors until they pass each of the required tests.