Saturday, November 14, 2015

PA: Testing Stutter Steps

Pennsylvania may or may not be close to getting a budget, or a temporary budget patch, or a deal to at least pay schools while the full budget continues to circle the drain. The news changes about every three or four hours.

But word comes out of Harrisburg that the budget talks also include discussion-- again-- of the use of the Keystone exams as a graduation requirement.

The Keystones are our version of the Big Standardized Test, theoretically aligned to the Pennsylvania Core Standards. The Pennsylvania Core Standards are of course one more version of the Common Core that are totes different from the national version because ours have the word "Pennsylvania" in the title and also don't have the word "Common" in the title, so completely different thing, absolutely. The Keystones are also our very own exam system even though I once sat through a state training on the testing in which we used PARCC materials and were assured those would work just fine. So there's that.

The original grandiose plan was for Keystone exams in every single subject area, but some problems have emerged with that plan including A) it turns out to be hard, B) it turns out to be expensive and C) pretty much everybody thinks the tests we have so far are crap.

It is C that has triggered an ongoing discussion about using the Keystones as graduation requirements. That requirement is supposed to happen for the class of 2017, which means that it's happening now because most schools give the exams in 10th or 11th grade in order to have some wiggle room to rescue the fails. People can't help noticing that a huge number of students who have are otherwise likely to complete graduation requirements are likely to be denied a diploma because of this crappy bubble test. And yes-- the Keystone is transparently the same old stupid bubble test because we have avoided on-line testing because we tried it once years ago and it was disastrous, so we are still bubbling in dots with our pencils.

Many of our legislators would like to press pause. And last summer, State Senator Lloyd Smucker managed to get a bill to pause the Keystones as a grad requirement for at least two years. This is no small thing-- Smucker is no friend of public education, but in fact has been a mover and shaker in pushing a Pennsylvania Achievement School District, a tool that Tennessee reformsters have found simply awesome for privatizing public schools. So even Smucker thinks that Keystones-as-grad-requirements is not ready for prime time. Which makes a little sense-- privatizers need to label schools as failures, but labeling actual humans as failures and denying them a diploma just creates a whole other mess of problems.

Smucker's bill passed the Senate and is currently languishing in the House Education Committee, where it is reportedly part of the larger budget debate. This may or may not be discouraging-- some days I suspect that education, employment, yellow line painting on the turnpike, and my dog's eating schedule are all part of the budget debate.

So maybe the Keystones will be graduation exams. Or maybe they are (as is oft asserted) intended to give us feedback and drive our instruction. Or maybe they're just to create data for use in teacher and school evaluations. Who knows. I mean, seriously-- does anybody know?

Meanwhile, however, in its Under the Dome report (behind a paywall) passed along the news that Data Recognition Corporation, Inc, has been awarded a contract to "continue the development, production and distribution of Pennsylvania's multiple assessments, including the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), the Keystone Exams, End of Course (EOC) exams and the Classroom Diagnostic Tool, among others." You can read the contract details here: five and a half years, $210 million, with an option for a three-year renewal. The PSSA test (what we use for grades 3-8, because reasons) and Keystone exams used to be separate contacts; they are now combined.

So we remain committed to testing for some purpose or other, even if we can't agree on what that purpose might be. Perhaps people who work in the test manufacturing industry have simply become numb to the insanity, but how does a state go to a company and say, "We'd like to order a test. It maybe will be used as a summative graduation-requirement test, or maybe it will just be a formative instructional-feeding test, or maybe it will just-- you know what? Just whip us up some big-ass scary test that covers a lot of stuff. We'll figure out what to use it for later."  It's like going to a tool manufacturer and saying, "Well, I need a tool and, I don't know-- I might be driving nails with it, or maybe screwing in screws-- though I'm not sure what kind-- or I might need it to cut boards, and maybe mold concrete."

So maybe DRC's contract is really to create the Swiss Army Knife of tests. But I think it's more likely that in PA on the policy leadership level, we have no idea what we're doing and DRC gets to make a cool $210 mill from our confusion. Stay tuned.


  1. Substitute Florida for Pennsylvania and FSA for Keystone and you are writing about the Sunshine State.

  2. The oft-stated reason for such graduation tests is to make sure that the students learned in the classroom and were not just given a passing grade. In other words, such tests are supposedly needed to hold the teachers accountable and certify that the students know the material. But, by that same line of reasoning, we would need a second series of tests to hold accountable the test-makers of the first series of tests and to make sure that the students who did pass the first series of tests actually know the material. But then we will need a third series of tests and on ad infinitum.

    I've been teaching at the college-level for a long time, and I see no reason to believe that all this testing is leading to better students entering college. Actually, it seems to me that the older students I have at my community college received a better high school education than the younger ones. I think that all the testing is both unnecessary in order to certify the grading process and a waste of time. But because it is a waste of time recent high school graduates seem to know less and be even less prepared for college than my college students who went to college thirty years ago.