Let educators, not politicians, decide what should replace Keystone Exams [editorial]

Newsworthy

THE ISSUE

In a special report released last week, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the commonwealth’s taxpayers are unnecessarily spending millions of dollars every year on the Keystone Exams, which have not been required since 2015, when the federal No Child Left Behind Law was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act. “Pennsylvania should aggressively explore using a nationally recognized test that can open new doors for students rather than continuing to spend money on an exam that is no longer required,” the auditor general said. “For less than what Pennsylvania spends on the Keystone Exams, it could instead pick up the tab for every high school student to take the PSAT or SAT.” He suggested the ACT as another option.

DePasquale has been an effective and energetic auditor general, rooting out wasteful spending in state-funded entities — including school districts — across the commonwealth.

But he’s not an educator. Educators — not politicians — should figure out what secondary-level standardized test is employed in Pennsylvania.

DePasquale is absolutely right, though, to call for transparency from the Pennsylvania Department of Education regarding its contracts with Data Recognition Corp., the Minnesota-based company that developed, administers and scores the Keystone Exam.

The Keystone Exam has been something of a boondoggle.

Originally, the exam was intended by lawmakers as a graduation requirement — the thinking being that students should prove they had mastered certain skills before getting their diplomas.

But educators including Solanco Superintendent Brian Bliss pointed out that the graduation requirement was a logistical nightmare for students trying to complete career and technical training. And some students simply don’t fare well on standardized tests.

So the graduation requirement first was delayed and then scrapped entirely by lawmakers, who approved alternative measures of graduation readiness — a move we welcomed.

Nevertheless, as DePasquale’s report points out, the state education department continues to pay Data Recognition Corp. tens of millions of dollars to administer Keystone Exams.

“Between 2015 and 2021, Pennsylvania will have spent nearly $100 million on the Keystone Exams” and associated pre-testing tools, the report states.

That math makes no sense to us.

Why pay such an exorbitant sum to a company for a state-specific test that’s no longer required?

We’ve long argued against the disproportionate place that standardized testing has come to occupy in public education. In our view, and that of many parents, the imperative to teach to the test had squeezed out subjects such as music, art and history.

A culture in which the standardized test reigned supreme was due for a necessary corrective. And that corrective arrived in 2017 in the form of the state education department’s decision to decrease the time students spend taking standardized tests by about 20%.

Now, it may be time to replace the Keystone Exam. But probably not, as DePasquale suggested, with the SAT or ACT, standardized tests that measure students’ aptitude for college.

The auditor general’s report says that at least 12 other states now use the SAT or ACT to meet the federal requirement of administering some secondary school exam.

“Research has shown that having all students take the SAT or ACT increases the rate at which students attend post-secondary education of some kind, particularly lower-income students who might not otherwise realize they could fare well in college,” the report maintains.

That may be true. But even colleges are moving away from the SAT and the ACT.

As the digital media company Inside Higher Ed reported in June, there’s been a surge in recent months “in the number of colleges dropping requirements that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores.” This trend is born out of the recognition that a student’s potential cannot always be captured in a standardized test. And that a student’s future shouldn’t be waylaid by his or her performance on a single, one-size-fits-all exam.

Which is not to say that standardized testing should be eliminated completely. As we wrote in April 2018, “We believe it can serve to alert school officials to struggling students — and teachers.”

Replacing the Keystone Exam with the SAT — even at an estimated saving of at least $1 million a year — strikes us as a bad idea, though we’d defer to educators on this.

Those interviewed by LNP’s Alex Geli didn’t think much of DePasquale’s idea either.

Bob Hollister, superintendent of the Eastern Lancaster County School District, said he agrees with DePasquale “that the Keystone Exams need replacing and that there is likely a more cost-efficient state testing system to be found.”

But “requiring all students to take a test specifically designed as a predictor of college success makes no educational sense whatsoever,” he added.

Hollister likened it to a future nurse taking an entrance exam for a welding program.

Penn Manor Superintendent Mike Leichliter said switching tests could be destructive to classroom instruction already geared toward the Keystones.

“Our schools, students and teachers need a reliable statewide exam that will stand the test of time and will not be subject to a change in the political climate of the moment,” Leichliter said.

Bliss expressed the hope that “we will see increased stability regarding testing and graduation requirements moving forward.”

The Keystone Exam has been anything but stable. It went from being a proposed graduation requirement to a delayed graduation requirement to one option among graduation requirements. Whole classes of students were caught up in the mess, as lawmakers tried to figure it out.

The task of what should replace it — if anything should — now must be left to educators, not politicians, DePasquale included.

And at least one politician agrees: State Sen. Ryan Aument, of Mount Joy, tweeted last week that Leichliter, Hollister and Bliss “are exactly right. Elected leaders in Harrisburg would do well to listen to them.”

They would indeed.