Friday, June 2, 2017

Parent Testimony on Keystone Exams

June 2nd Senators Eichelberger and Dinniman Education Committee Hearing  
Elimination of the Keystone Exams and the Use of the Graduation Requirements

Parent Panel Participant Testimony 
by Dawn Sweeney

My name is Dawn Sweeney and I am a parent to five school aged children in Owen J. Roberts School District.  My oldest is the class of 2017 and my youngest is the class of 2028.  I have been actively involved with Keystone Exam issues for 5 years.  

I am also the author of a statewide blog called Opt Out Pennsylvania, which discuses Keystone exams issues. From mid-April to mid-May this year there were days that my blog had over 1,000 views.  This is significant considering the demographic is limited to parents of students who are in 8th, 9th and 10th grade.  In four weeks last month there were 18,539 views on: How to Opt Out of the Keystone Exams.  This is a clear indicator that the Keystone exam graduation requirement is adversely affecting quite a few students and that it’s a significant issue.

Students who don’t pass a Keystone are placed in remediation in the form of a class or online curriculum like Key Math or Study Island. These remedial classes are a general overview of Keystone exam content and do not address a students specific individual content area needs.  So the remediation is not individualized because neither students, or teachers get specific feedback on areas that a student needs improvement from the Keystone exam score. 

These remedial classes are an unfunded mandate that cost the school district financially and sometimes results in courses not being offered due to scheduling because teachers are pulled to cover a remedial class.

The people who score the Keystone exams are not required to have any teaching experience or any background in the tested areas of Algebra, English or Biology.  To be a Keystone exam scorer, proof of a college degree is all that is required.  Scorers are not required to be certified teachers and do not need to have any education experience. The scorers are paid $11-$14 an hour which is entry level pay.  35% of the English Keystone and 40% of the Algebra Keystone are graded by these under qualified scorers.

At my daughter high school they have 3 levels of classes, Standard, College Prep and Honors. Yet because of the Keystone exams, students are all preparing for the same test content which minimizes the distinction of Honors versus College Prep and Standard classes.

My daughter's class used a Keystone Guide to prepare for the constructed response portion of the English Keystone.  It describes the written portion of the exam where students are to write a paragraph.   On this Keystone Guide, students are told not to use “overly sophisticated language”, in other words, keep it basic.  Not something students are used to hearing in an Honors English class. More concerning is the way they are told to write the paragraph for the Keystone exam, specifically to put the thesis statement as the first sentence, not the at or near the end of the paragraph.  Writing is a cornerstone skill, and the Keystone exams asks that students place a thesis statement incorrectly in a paragraph.  I suspect the reason for this is for ease of scoring as the scorers can be instructed to look at the first sentence as the thesis statement.

I want to emphasize that is not the fault of teachers, rather it's the Keystone mandate that forces teacher to teach to the test, even when it goes against their professional training and proper writing techniques.

College admissions do not consider the Keystone exams in any capacity.  Yet, they are given at the same time students are preparing for SAT/ACT and need to maintain a good GPA – which are all things that colleges do consider for admissions. The Keystone exams take valuable educational time away from students during critical high school years. That the PDE considers putting Keystone exam scores on transcripts demonstrates their lack of understanding that the Keystone exams are not a component of the college admissions process.

In closing, I would like to tell you about two local students.  Grace is a sophomore at West Chester East High School.  She has taken the Biology and Algebra Keystone twice and failed to meet the passing benchmark. She participated in the recommended remediation, including in school and after school support. Grace's combined grade on her second Biology attempt was lower than the first. Algebra performance was better on second trial, falling 6 points short of passing.

She currently has the literature test looming. Grace has a diagnosis of a reading disability. Her prognosis for passing a language arts based measure is questionable. She meets the criterion for a 504 plan but not an IEP thus requiring her to meet all the graduation standards of the regular education curriculum.

She is left with the option of opting out. However, each test opt out would require 15-20 hours to complete a project based assessment; consider tripling that if she fails all three Keystones. Project based assessments would take the place of electives in Grace's schedule. Most would agree that electives are essential to a well-rounded education. To complicate matters further, it is questionable if Grace would acquire the number of credits required for graduation if one accounted for lost electives.

Shane is currently a sophmore at Norristown Area High School.  He failed the Algebra Keystone freshman year by a slight margin.   He had Keystone Remediation class for a semester during his sophmore year knocking out his chance of having JROTC, a class he loved and performed well in his freshman year.

Shane attended Central Montgomery County VoTechnical School for Networking Technology. He has a 95 average in this course and 2 certifications that he can use in real life work.  He will have 3 dual enrollment credits to Montgomery County Community College in this field of study.  He has excelled and feels very confident, plus has a career path!  However, Shane has been threatened that if he fails any of the Keystones that he may not be able to attend Tech school next year. 

Grace and Shane represent many other students who are in similar situations due to the Keystone graduation requirement.  These students are on the brink of their junior year and wonder if they will get the chance to graduate if they pass all subjects. I think that question needs to be extensively and exhaustively considered by the legislature. The ramifications could be tremendous for Grace and Shane, and thousands of Pennsylvania students statewide who pass all of their high school classes and requirements but have their 12 years of schooling reduced to the dubious results of a single test.

Thank you for considering the issues presented today.  I urge you to do whatever you can to eliminate the Keystone graduation requirement.