This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania continues to wrestle with an essential question for the future of its people and its economy: What should a high school diploma mean, and what should it take to earn one?
In the last decade, the state has moved toward prioritizing standardized testing as a graduation requirement.
But the pendulum now seems to be swinging in the opposite direction.
A quick history lesson
In the mid-2000s, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration pushed to create new standardized tests that students would need to pass in order to graduate high school.
By 2010, the measure had become law, and it was decided that there would be 10 end-of-subject "Keystone" exams.
Only three of these were developed — algebra, literature and biology.
Students began taking the tests in 2012, and performance was supposed to affect graduation for the class of 2017.
But then, many more students than expected weren’t passing the exams.
Annual pass rates have been below 60 percent for more than half of all District and charter schools, with lower pass rates for low-income students and students of color.
The state offered no additional resources to help students remediate or complete alternate project-based assessments — a nightmare for districts and parents.
Many districts spent millions of dollars attempting to get students on track. Cash-strapped districts, often tasked with serving the greatest needs, braced for the worst. Students across the state missed other learning opportunities to focus on the tests.
In January 2016, as the political fallout grew, lawmakers pushed back the effective date for two years.
"I still support the concept. I just think in rolling out the implementation of this graduation requirement, we ran into a lot of problems," said State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, a Lancaster County Republican who chairs the education committee, speaking in January.
The bill delaying the requirement had unanimous bipartisan support, a major rarity.
And it asked the state Department of Education, now under Gov. Wolf, to sketch out some possible alternatives.