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

By Joan Benso on Nov 27, 2013 03:17 PM

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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Comments (6)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2013 6:05 pm
While I share Benso's concern that far too many students receive a diploma without demonstrating even that they can show up, I don't know if the solution is the Keystone Exams. Benso wrote there is no longer a senior project requirement. This may have been the only opportunity for students to do research and learn how to write a paper with citations. The Keystones are glorified PSSAs. The English test is a reading comprehension test. The math is only Algebra. Biology focuses more on memorization of vocabulary than what might be learned in labs. There is no longer a writing test. What do students need to be successful in college / career? Basics like showing up on time, show effort, doing a job, etc. Too many students are "promoted" because of age or IEP and never have to do much more than 1/2 of the time warm a seat. The Keystones won't address these problems or prepare students for college / career. The "no excuses" charters (Young Scholars, Mastery, KIPP, etc.) will focus on test prep just like they do now. Other schools will steer more resources to "remediation." These aren't solutions to unprepared, unmotivated students who are not motivated to work.
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on November 28, 2013 11:53 am
Great we should raise standards. But no student in any of my High school classes reads at grade level; the vast majority are under 5th grade level. So to implement this project the SDP is going to have to send me student with High School Skills starting this year. How many students will I have in 2 years and how many permanent Middle Schools must will build to realize this dream of everyone passing the standardized test of the moment?
Submitted by Education Grad ... on November 28, 2013 9:23 pm
"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." If you want to raise expectations, you also have to provide the necessary supports in order for students to be able to meet those expectations. RAISING EXPECTATIONS WITHOUT PROVIDING THE NECESSARY SUPPORTS SETS STUDENTS UP FOR FAILURE! Necessary supports means adequate funding. There needs to be a level playing field. Everyone needs to be starting at the same starting line or an appropriately staggered starting point (to use the analogy of a track). We don't tell some runners to run 200 yards and other runners to run 300 yards and expect them to all finish in the a similar amount of time. A 200 yard dash and a 300 yard dash are two different races. The same starting line/starting point means the same level of support and resources in all schools. Taxpayer-funded inputs must all be equal or equitable for schools across the Commonwealth in order to even start talking about what it is fair to expect of students. The inputs are not the same. Ms. Benso, what is you response to this? EGS
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2013 6:14 am
The "cheating" scandal on standardized testing in some District and Charters has been conveniently forgotten. If students must pass the Keystones to graduate (or do the "Project yet to be defined"), will the urge to "game" the test continue? Again, magnet schools will be off the hook because they only accept students who have proven they are good testers. Charters will dump students who don't make the grade. Then, neighborhood schools will continue to be "dumping grounds." If Bill Green gets on the SRC, his goal is to charterize everything but magnets. The test prep factories like Mastery won't take or keep the most difficult students. Will the SRC open up more "discipline" schools? All of this costs a lot more money. I don't see Corbett or the PA Legislature ready to pay the bill.
Submitted by tom-104 on November 29, 2013 6:13 am
Using the usual deceptive methods of corporate education reformers, Joan Benso claims that "These standards -- developed by Pennsylvania teachers, not federal bureaucrats – ensure that every public school in the commonwealth has high, uniform expectations for student achievement." The development of the Common Core is notable for NOT involving educators in its development. See "Florida Teacher: "I Was Among Those Who Reviewed the Common Core in 2009" at Living in Dialogue at Education Week. Be sure to read the comments. Also see: "Mercedes Schneider Explains: Who Paid for the Common Core Standards" by Diane Ravitch at HuffPost Education.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 2, 2013 10:49 am
Ms. Benzo, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what standardized tests measure and what they do not measure. It is a myth that the PSSA's, and now the Keystone exams, measure proficiency in anything. They certainly do not measure, "Whether a student has earned the right to graduate form high school." Only teachers and qualified administrators can make that judgment. Neither the PSSA's nor the Keystones even define in behavioral terms what "proficiency means" in any credible manner, let alone describe any credible manner in which it is being measured. Proficiency as used in standardized tests are all arbitrary levels with no consensus in their meaning, and which were not set by any educators who actually teach real life students. There also seems to be a grave misunderstanding in the "range" of achievement levels of seniors in high school. Do you even know that as many of 10% of our population suffer from dyslexia which makes passing such standardized tests nearly impossible. Do you know that some experts on dyslexia set that figure as high as 20% of the population. There is also grave misunderstanding of what "learning disability" really means. Do you understand that many students with disabilities are at the top of the intelligence scale? What you advocate for is an abuse of standardized tests, and what is actually a lowering of standards. I can not believe that on the one hand you say we need to raise standards (which almost everyone agrees with) and on the other hand brag about the elimination of senior projects which is the elimination of high standards. The standards which need to be raised most are our own standards as citizens and educators who should provide a high level of services to all children which we do not.

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