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High stakes testing arrives in PA

By Helen Gym on Nov 2, 2009 12:52 PM

Ways of tackling the drop-out crisis that raise awareness and engage youth and others in creative solutions:

Philly Student Union members cut a CD addressing the dropout crisis to raise attention to the issue and raise funds for a great organization whose 99% graduation rate is testimony enough of their success. Oh, and PSU did groundbreaking on the new West Philly school too. Check out Koby's pitch below, listen to the CD, and donate to PSU here.

Ways of tackling the drop-out crisis that do anything but:

This month the state Board of Education approved new state graduation exams for all high school students in Pennsylvania.

The "Keystone Exams" had been rejected year after year by an overwhelming majority of school boards, education organizations, and school advocates. The exception? Both Mayor Nutter and School Chief Arlene Ackerman endorsed the idea. (Read this op-ed by a Delaware County school board official about some of the current reasons 95% of school board opposed graduation exams.)

The ten exams cover basic high school subjects like algebra and science. Students must pass the exams every year in order to pass their class and must pass six out of the ten exams in order to graduate. Students who don’t will be denied a high school diploma but the larger likelihood is that they’ll drop out if they fail a number of tests. This has been the trend in a number of states around the country, as documented by Fair Test. The exams go into effect in 2014.

As we know, it’s not a Pennsylvania project if there’s not huge amounts of money and financial contributions involved: $176 million to develop the exams and $31 million a year (borne by local districts) to administer them. Cost of increased drop out rates in a city that doesn’t need it: priceless.

Meanwhile, the Independent Regulatory and Review Commission that was supposed to independently analyze the tests has come under scrutiny for being – well not so independent. There’s some question of just how much IRRC members were wined and dined by lobbyists. 

It’s also worth noting that last spring, the State Board of Education came under fire for signing a $201 million, seven-year contract with a Minnesota company to develop the exams, even though they hadn’t been approved at the time. The company had donated over $200,000 to Harrisburg politicians in the past two years.

And the state Attorney General is apparently looking into the decision to see whether the state Board of Ed may have overstepped its legal rights by changing the regulations – for example, they removed parents as a required body on the exam review panel.

Ed Secretary Gerald Zahorchak once described the exams as helping make a high school diploma "meaningful." But in a city where thousands of kids drop out every year, the most meaningful thing these tests seem to hold is a cash bonanza for testing companies while more and more kids get left out in the cold.

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Comments (15)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 3, 2009 1:25 pm

I think this article totally mischaracterizes what the Keystone exams do and how they will work. The fact you call them high stakes testing show you haven't read the actuall regulation. They are far from high stakes. The current PSSAs are far more "high stakes" then the Keystones. In fact, with the adoption of the Keystones, actually testing days kids have is reduced.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 3, 2009 2:09 pm

I strongly disagree! What more high stakes can there be but NOT to graduate if you fail an exam? If a student fails the PSSAs do they fail school and not graduate? I think not! So which is more high stakes? See I do not care what the regulations say. I care about the results of the issue of testing! Regulations do not define the test what happens as a result of the tests do!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 3, 2009 3:51 pm

A good feature with the Keystone exams is they can be taken right after you learn the material. So, your chances of passing are higher than the PSSAs. With the PSSAs, you take them in 11th grade, long after you learn most of the information, and most of the time, you don't know if you pass them until 12th grade. If you don't pass the PSSAs the first time, you have to take them a second time with hardly any time to review the information. With the Keystones, if you don't pass the first time, you are told right away and you have plenty of time to review the info and actually learn the material. Plus, if your a "bad test taker", you can opt out and do a project instead.

These are clearly not "high stakes". Personlly, I think students should be resonsable to know the information they are taught! Other wise, high school diplomas become meaningless!

Submitted by Helen Gym on November 5, 2009 9:29 am

You're mixing up two separate issues that don't necessarily have to go together.

No one disagrees that we want students to remember what they're taught (heck, as an adult I wish I remembered half the stuff I was supposed to). No one disagrees that we want a meaningful high school experience for our children, one which is both academically rigorous but also rewarding on a number of levels to encourage them to seek education as a lifelong tool.

But that's a totally separate issue from hundreds of  millions of dollars over the next five years devoted to 10 state exams which start in 9th grade and threaten class failure and graduation failure in a inequitable system of education.

You also really need to double check  your information. I have never heard that the Keystones are optional or that you can opt-out with a project instead. In fact, the opposite is true. The Keystones are mandatory such that education advocates have raised serious concerns about whether and what kind of accomodations there will be for special ed students and English language learners. They are not optional.

PSSAs are an annual state standardized exam that test in math and reading as well as science (in specific grades). No one "retakes" a PSSA since they're given annually.  And there is no direct punitive result to the child as the writer above noted; however a school may be held accountable for not ensuring that enough students move into the proficient or advanced group.

I don't disagree with your frustration or the urgency of boosting the capabilities of our young people. You also have every right to say you think pinning graduation on state tests is fine (just as other folks have a right to disagree with you). But your claim that Keystone exams are not high stakes but the PSSAs are is just flat wrong information - not as a matter of opinion but by definition and execution. So let's restart the conversation from a different angle than this one.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 5, 2009 9:21 am

You also really need to double check your information. I have never heard that the Keystones are optional or that you can opt-out with a project instead.

Seriously? Please read the actual regulation. I will refer you to chapter 4.5 subsections N and O. Here you will find provisions for project based assessments. You say you have 'never heard.' Try reading the reg for yourself instead of relying on other people for information.


Submitted by Helen Gym on November 5, 2009 5:11 pm

Clarification: Students cannot opt out of the tests. You are correct that project based assessment is written into the regulations; however, you're not correct that they're an option for "bad test takers" who don't want to take the Keystones. All students must still take each of the 10 Keystone exams.

The project-based assessments are state-created make-up options to gain additional points "lost" on the Keystone exams. However, in order to even take these assessments, a student must take that Keystone exam twice, meet attendance requirements in that class, and complete a tutoring program.

At that point a student would then be eligible for the state-created make-up. However, a student who failed multiple parts of each Keystone exam would need to complete multiple project based assessments for each section. In some sense it's true that a student who twice failed a Keystone would get another chance through a state project assessment, but I think it's also fair to question whether the pre-requisites would eliminate a sizeable sector of students and require significant work and time for the others who are able to qualify for make-ups.

Submitted by Philly neighborhood HS teacher (not verified) on November 6, 2009 6:56 am

While I don't like a litany of exams, what, Helen, do you suggest will make a Philadelphia high school diploma worth more than the paper it is printed on? (Yes, I'm ending the sentence with a preposition.) The graduation requirements in Philadelphia are very weak - there are numerous ways for students to "make up" credits (e.g. credit recovery, Saturday school, summer school, "independent study," etc.) With the push to improve graduation rates, many students are being promoted regardless of even attendance. (Many of these students do not have an IEP which is often watered down to ensure graduation.)

I'm open to getting away from a credit based system and testing, but, then we need something that will increase the likelihood students have the academic, social and life skills and broad content knowledge/experiences to be able to do something beyond high school. The PSSA is used only to rate schools and it is cumulative in high school (grade 11) versus, as you wrote, by grade (like 3 - 8). Because reading and math "count," there is undue emphasis in high schools on English and math at the expense of every other subject. (Yes, I'm also open to a cross curricular approach but the current Phila HS curricula makes no attempt to have anything cross curricular. I also realize students do as much reading in social studies, and possibly science, as English but the SDP doesn't recognize it and nor do most administrators.)

There are nice examples of alternatives to the lock step curricula to prepare students for the PSSA at Philadelphia magnet schools but it is the opposite at neighborhood schools. I don't trust the SDP to come up with an alternative to a state-wide standardize system for evaluation because I've seen too many years of "pass them" for the sake of school stats. At least the subject area tests will be aligned with what the students were to learn. This will also give credence to more than what is learned in English and math. To argue teachers will "teach to the test" is valid but that is what is happening with the benchmark and PSSA testing.

Lastly, you seem to be dismissing the project based alternative because if happens after failure of an exam and it will be "significant work." While there might be a way to set up an equitable and "rigorous" system to start with a project (versus the test), I have no problem with it being "significant work." The problem now, especially with projects like the Senior Project, is how little work it has become in many schools. The Senior Project is a state mandate that is a joke in many schools because it has become a "whatever," short research paper rather than a full fledged service learning/research project. I'm afraid the same could happen with the project based alternatives to an exam.

What we need more of in high schools are alternative models of school that admit ALL students regardless of test scores, attendance, behavior, etc. There are intriguing magnet schools in Philly but until there are as many alternatives for students without the academic and behavior records to qualify, then the inequity is entrenched in a school district which officially tracks students beginning in 5th grade (e.g. Masterman, GAMP, Conwell in 6th) will not be challenged. (The tracking obviously starts earlier when 1st graders are given an "IO test" and labeled "gifted," etc.)

As a parent and teacher I would like to see many "pathways" to graduation and alternative models (e.g. Youth Build, Job Corp type programs, etc.) if there is "significant work" which is monitored and rigorous. Otherwise, we'll have a lot of useless "senior projects" and many students with a paper that states "graduate" but who lack the academic, social and life schools which lead to more opportunities. (Yes, this opens up the debate on the purpose and role of education but that is a different post.)

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on November 6, 2009 11:52 am

Just wanted to point out that if you'd like to write that different post, we could post it as a guest blog. It's been great reading your insightful comments, and now the blog has another venue for you to share your thoughts. 

The project option just doesn't seem to address any concerns though. If students have to fail tests twice to even get the option, then Helen is probably right and they'll drop out before they get to that point. Talk about demoralizing. And, like you mention, if we look at the current senior project, then the project doesn't achieve the goal of showing that students know x,y,z; it would just be another hoop to jump through.

As I mentioned in another comment, I don't think there's anything wrong with making a diploma worthwhile, that's great! But the alternative is to get the order right. Figure out the curriculum concerns you lay out, figure out how to get all schools functional, figure out how to make sure students are supported, etc etc. We need to start by setting kids up to succeed, not just withholding the diploma if they fail (and that includes even if we give them makeups and multiple opportunities to retake the test, clearly there was something going on that prevented them from learning the info the first time).  

Submitted by Helen Gym on November 9, 2009 1:00 pm

Whoa. Slow down. There is nothing in my post that says I disagree with a "significant amount of work" in high school. 

Despite your interest in finding points of disagreement, I actually think we agree far more than disagree. I'm all for hard work and academic rigor.  I'm not against testing, I don't believe in social promotion and I'm not against holding students accountable just as I wouldn't be against holding teachers, principals, administrators and the SRC accountable for the failures across the system.  And I agree with you that the question here is: in an inequitable system of education, one that largely fails on many accounts for the average student in a neighborhood high school, how do you make a high school diploma meaningful?

The punitive system of high stakes testing tends to focus on forcing the child to pass no mattter what the circumstances are. No matter if the child has a first year teacher who's never taught algebra before. No matter if the child doesn't have adequate science facilities at their school. No matter if the child is in an overcrowded class of ninth graders with a rotating series of substitutes. No matter if there's textbook access. No matter if their school library hasn't bought new materials since they arrived at that school.

To me, it's similar to the idea of linking a teacher's salary to test score improvement, something vastly unpopular with most teachers because of the complexity of issues surrounding improving education. In some ways though I see exit exams and teacher "merit pay" as being closely linked. If you support one - accountability for students based on testing - how could you not support the other - accountability for teachers based on testing.

I'd rather that we start with a system of accountability that moves away from ideas which locate all the burden on the individual and begins to measure progress systemically on other fronts, which in my opinion is critcal to individual achievement: 

  • How have we ensured and utilized manageable class sizes across the district and in key grades to maximize the quality of interaction between a child and his/her teacher?
  • How have we improved the percentage of accredited teachers teaching in their field of expertise in high school?
  • How have we ensured that students have access to adequate and competitive facilities like science labs and school libraries for research and study?
  • How have we ensured a stable teaching force by reducing teacher turnover and/or capping the percentage of inexperienced teachers teaching at a school?
  • How have we guaranteed a diversified curriculum so that high school students are exposed to a well rounded variety of classes?
  • How have we expanded bilingual education and language access so that immigrant students have the maximum opportunity to succeed?
  • How do we ensure focused intervention for struggling students in middle and high school to address academic problems before it comes to an end of course exam?


In other words for a high school diploma to be meaningful, high schools have to be meaningful to students. I appreciate the points you make, but I think we have to get to some of those concerns you raise outside of yet another battery of tests that punishes kids.

Submitted by Philly neighborhood HS teacher (not verified) on November 9, 2009 7:50 pm

Systematic change has to start with the inequitable, tracked system that has permeated Philadelphia since Central High was created. I'd start by getting rid of magnet and special admit schools. If parents with children in special admit schools would send their children to their neighborhood high schools (e.g. Greenfield to South Philly High, Meredith to Furness, Penn Alexander to West Philly, etc.), then we'd see some dramatic improvements in the areas you've listed. Will you, and other parents with children in magnet schools like Masterman, Central, SLA, etc., send your children to your neighborhood high schools?

Submitted by Helen Gym on November 9, 2009 8:00 pm

Will the magnet school system fall? In short no. 

Complain about magnets all you want. For that matter you forgot to take on the thousands in parochial, private and charter school too. I don't see where that gets you. If you have solutions for making high schools work then let's hear them, but there's no point in alienating people who are more likely to be your allies than not.

Submitted by Philly neighborhood HS teacher (not verified) on November 10, 2009 6:05 am

I'm not being sarcastic regarding magnet schools. Parochia and private are beyond the scope since they aren't public funded. Charters, while having ways to manipulate their lottery, are still lottery based but some do require contracts which I think are questionable. That said, I honestly think the magnet system is a detriment to the SDP as a whole. If those who benefit from it, especially families at Masterman (and Central and SLA but to a lesser degree since Masterman starts in 5th grade), aren't willing to look beyond how it benefits their family, there will be little change in Philly. Once a student enters Masterman, their school social group is very select, often elite or at least well connected, and the students are repeatedly told they are "the best."

Also, I gladly welcome subject specific tests and/or projects as a way to keep teachers honest and focused on students and learning. I much rather be held accountable for a subject specific test and/or project than a generic reading and math test in 11th grade.

This is anecdotal but I am a product of a NY public school which had no AP but had the Regents. Certainly not ideal but it prepared me for college in a way I would not have been prepared at a Philly neighborhood school. I knew how to write an essay and take a 3 hour exam. It got me through my first year year at a state college. Otherwise, I would have probably ended up in remedial classes at a community college - the college my parents preferred since I could live at home and stay working at a job I had through high school - but would have been an additional 1 - 2 years of high school.

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on November 4, 2009 11:38 am

This post got picked up as part of "Best of the Blogs" over on This Week in Education. Cool! That link also lists interesting pieces about Obama's first year and abolishing the Secretary of Education post. 

Great for this issue to get picked up elsewhere since as Fair Test as relentlessly documented it's an issue with national relevance.

Submitted by Helen Gym on November 5, 2009 9:12 am

Very interesting. Thanks Erika!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 26, 2011 9:37 pm

Speaking of the exams, i think its unfair to just spring a exam that could affect futures of many students (im a student myself who is in 8th grade who has to take it). Just think, a student who has straight A`s and is top of his or her class end up failing the test twice some how and they decide to hold their diploma. do you honestly think that is how education is to be. i dont know much of the outside world because i am taking care of, but i really enjoy learning and feel that forcing state test on students just makes learning feel like another burden on them. if the state was smart they would evaluate districts in the state and see what their based cirriculum is like and find ways to speed it up and improve it, wether then just giving a test that has no yet been finalized nor has been seen fit to every disctricts standards and at the point were they are. At my school, we didnt find out about the test till like november, in which we were learning stuff for the PSSA's not the keystones, and it puts stress on the teacher to have to change lesson plans for the year and skip sections that could help students better understand what they learned. My teacher had to teach us 6 chapters in about 20 days and we are looking at the practice test which to me seems not even close to our understanding. on top of that we were reviewing for the PSSA's at the same time.

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