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Benso: We can’t afford to wait on raising standards





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There’s been a lot of much-needed discussion about Pennsylvania’s academic standards – known as the Pennsylvania Core Standards – and the related Keystone Exams for high school students. Much of that talk has focused on school funding issues, the notion of “over-testing” students, and fears of unfunded state mandates being pushed on school districts.

Those arguments have clouded the main reason that the Pennsylvania Core Standards and Keystone Exams are badly needed. For too long, Pennsylvania schools have been graduating  tens of thousands of students each year who failed to show proficiency in core subjects like reading and math. In 2012 alone, one-third of all Pennsylvania public high school graduates -- about 44,000 kids statewide -- did not score proficient or advanced on the 11th-grade PSSAs or the 12th-grade retake, but they were handed diplomas anyway.

And if you think these unprepared students come from only a handful of high-poverty or low-performing school districts, you’re wrong. These students come from all types of schools throughout the state, not just our most distressed ones. In fact, 428 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts and 74 charter schools and career and technical centers graduated at least 20 percent more students in 2012 than scored proficient or advanced on the 11th-grade PSSAs.

Simply put, this is a worrisome problem that exists statewide. So we need a statewide, comprehensive solution. We need the Pennsylvania Core Standards and Keystone Exams. This proposal has long been under consideration and, in fact, a more rigorous version was proposed and enacted during Gov. Ed Rendell's administration.

These standards -- developed by Pennsylvania teachers, not federal bureaucrats – ensure that every public school in the commonwealth has high, uniform expectations for student achievement. This way, we can make sure all Pennsylvania students are college- and career-ready when they receive their high school diplomas, regardless of where they attended school.

Some have argued that the Pennsylvania Core Standards should be delayed until more state funding is provided to struggling schools. Taking steps to provide adequate and equitable state resources to every school district must be a priority for lawmakers. But if we wait until every school district is adequately funded before we advance reforms designed to increase student achievement, we shortchange our students. Far too many Pennsylvania students graduate from high school and enroll in community or four-year colleges, job training programs or try to enlist in the military only to discover they cannot succeed because they weren’t adequately prepared in high school. That’s unacceptable.

Some have raised concerns that Keystone Exams amount to more testing of high school students – another barrage of exams on top of the 11th-grade PSSA. In reality, the Keystone Exams replace the PSSA as a better tool to gauge student readiness. Keystone Exams are given at or near the end of a course, when content is fresher and more relevant in a student’s mind and teachers can more quickly identify content areas where students are struggling in order to provide support. Students who fail to score proficient on a Keystone Exam can get supplemental instruction and retake all or part of the exam. If unsuccessful, students can move to a project-based assessment to demonstrate proficiency. And because Keystone Exams will be required for graduation, students will be more likely to take these exams seriously and try to do their best.

It is important to note that the regulations actually relieve districts of some existing mandates, including eliminating a state requirement that all students complete a senior project to graduate and a state-mandated strategic-planning requirement for school districts. Plus, if a school district wants to use its own locally crafted assessment in place of Keystone Exams, it can, as long as the local assessment is validated to be at least as rigorous as the Keystone Exam.

If we truly want our students to succeed, both in school and beyond, we have to raise expectations for those students -- all of them, not just those who live in certain communities. The Pennsylvania Core Standards and Keystone Exams do just that, and that is why Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children strongly supports these improvements to public education and will continue to advocate for adequate and equitable state education funding to make good on our promise to every child.

Joan Benso is the president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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