The second wave of state Keystone Exams will hit area high schools this week, and unlike earlier pilot programs conducted in a limited number of schools, this year all 11th-grade students must take the new standardized tests.
And unlike those pilot programs, the tests now matter. Results in two of the three subject tests – algebra and literature (biology tests are also being given) – replace the now-defunct 11th-grade math and reading tests in determining if schools meet mandated adequate yearly progress, or AYP, goals. While school-level data for prior Keystones isn't available, state-level numbers suggest students are doing much more poorly on the new exams than they did on the old.
This is the first year Keystones will be given in all schools, so the data isn't complete, but in last year's exams, only 38.6 percent of students tested scored proficient or better in algebra I, compared to 60 percent in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment math tests.
Similarly, 49.9 percent of those tested scored proficient or better in the Keystone literature test, while 67.8 percent did so in the PSSA reading tests.
For the last decade, high schools had to meet minimum percentages of proficient students in the PSSA 11th-grade tests to make AYP toward a federal goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2012. Schools had to meet the same goals in grades three through eight – and those grades will still take the PSSA tests – but districts typically found it harder to get the juniors in high school to take the tests seriously.
I can remember when we started giving the tests, high school students wouldn't even put their names on them. They didn't take them seriously, said Dallas Superintendent Frank Galicki, who worked as a high school principal before getting the top job.
A big reason is that PSSA results meant nothing to a student's chances of graduating. Districts worked years to overcome that problem, and pushed test scores up, though they still often lagged behind other grades – and below the minimum goals, which rose periodically.
The Keystones have long been discussed as a solution to that problem. Students in eighth grade this year must pass the Keystones to graduate. The idea is to administer the test at the end of the class that taught the specific subject, then give the student who doesn't score well enough multiple opportunities to retest.
Dallas High School Principal Jeff Schafer said he agrees with that concept. The problem is the state abruptly announced last year that all 11th-grade students must take the Keystones this year, and that the results would replace the PSSA 11th-grade tests.
We knew the Keystone Exams were going to be coming into play this year, so we were ready for that, Schafer said.
Most local districts either already administered the tests in December or will be doing so in the next two weeks, but Dallas will give the tests in May (the state gave districts four windows for testing). Dallas has been retooling curriculum for two years, and administering Keystone-like exams in preparation.
The short notice of the 11th-grade mandate caught principals by surprise, Schafer said. In all three subjects, the students studied the material they will be tested on one to three years ago.
Half our kids studied Algebra I in eighth grade and half in ninth, Schafer said. Most biology and literature courses were done by 10th.
The student should have taken the Keystones at the end of the courses, not half-way – or worse – through their junior year.
To compound the problem, the mandate for 11th-grade tests came after districts already had curriculum and tutorial programs scheduled, making it harder to adapt to the change.
And Schafer said Dallas is also administering Keystones in the appropriate grades, meaning students from ninth grade up will take them. All that prepping and testing will eat up 20 to 30 days of the school year, Galicki said. Instructional time is going to diminish significantly.
Schafer noted the Keystone tests are more difficult than the PSSAs precisely because they are subject specific and designed to be taken at the end of a course (tests in additional subjects will be added in the future). The PSSAs were more general in content.
Asked if they thought results in Keystone tests will be lower than the district's PSSA test performance last year, both men said that was likely. I think that's a fair assumption, Schafer said.
But he also said districts statewide did poorly in the first year or two of PSSA testing, and had to adjust to the changes. Schafer was confident Dallas will do the same this time.
Whatever we do this year, I can assure you we will be performing at or near the top in a few years, Schafer said.