Saturday, June 17, 2017

PA: Testing Non-Reform

In Pennsylvania, our Big Standardized Test for high school students is the Keystone Exam. Its history is a sad study in BS Testing. Its future is cloudy. Unfortunately, while the Keystones may be on the way out, there's no reason to believe they won't be replaced with something worse.

Back in the (pre-Common Core) day, PA used the PSSA tests to measure student achievement of some sort for reasons of some sort. Our elementary schools still use the PSSA tests on the elementary level. But by the Fall of 2010 we were all being hyped up for the New! Improved! Keystone exams (I'm looking at some of the handouts from the era which were still tucked in a corner of my desk).

For those of you who don't know what a keystone is, actually

Keystone plans were ambitious. Pennsylvania would offer "end-of-course assessments designed to assess proficiency in various subject areas." The list was extensive-- Algebra I, Algebra II, Biology, Chemistry, Civics and Government, Geometry, English Composition, Literature, U.S.History, and World History. Note-- these were not just supposed to be Big Standardized Stand-alone Tests, but the actual final exam for these courses.

The graduating class of 2016 was going to take the first four-- Algebra I, Biology, Literature, and English Composition. And those tests were going to account for one third of their final course grade. Other tests were going to be field tested and rolled out in 2011, 2012 and 2015.

Mostly that didn't happen.

It's 2017, and only three of the tests have been completed. The Literature, Biology and Mathy Keystones have been with us for a few years (brought to us by the folks at Data Recognition Corporation, a company already contracted for piles of money and many years,  and SAS, the same group that owns and operates the VAAS flavor of VAM sauce). This is the part where I incriminate myself and say that despite our super-secret pledge as teachers to remains ignorant of the test content-- well, I peeked, anyway. The Literature test is junk. But that's a discussion for another day.

What's important at the moment is that Pennsylvania was going to make those three tests graduation requirements, but it keeps blinking. Perhaps the legislature keeps postponing the use of the Keystones as graduation requirements because these are normed tests, aka tests that are graded on a curve, guaranteeing that some percentage of students must always fail. Legislators seem reluctant to tell a big bunch of PA high school seniors that even though their grades are good, the state says they can't have a diploma.

So the three Keystone exams continue, a graduation requirement now, maybe, in 2019. They are not (yet) a state requirement for graduation, though many school districts use them as a local requirement so that we'll be ready when the state makes up its mind. Oh, and even though the Keystone exam has absolutely no consequences at all for students, the Keystone exam results are still used to evaluate schools and teachers. So that's awesome.

Now Senator Andrew E. Dinniman and Sen. John H. Eichelberger, Jr. have introduced a bill to do something other than kick the can further down the road. Senate Bill 756 proposes to eliminate the Keystone exams entirely. Unfortunately, the bill proposes a few other bad ideas in their place.

After leading with the whole Keystone-destruction thing, the bill says that as far as the federal requirement for a Big Standardized Test goes, just use the SAT or the ACT or the ASVAB or a proper vocational test or the GED. All of these are terrible ideas for an exit exam for high school seniors because none of these were designed for that purpose. "We don't want you to use a hammer to drive those woodscrews-- use this glue gun instead."

Third, the bill says that the test must take less than two instructional days and it must be scored and returned to the school within thirty days. These requirements are dumb. The first is frequently pushed by politicians, some of them well-meaning, but it shows a complete lack of understanding of how tests screw with school. Let's say that the parents of your school football players complain that football season takes up too much of their children's lives; the useful response is not to say, "Okay, all games must be played in at least two hours." The Big Standardized Test is just game day; the test prep season eats far more year and does far more damage than the test. The thirty-day return policy? Nice idea, but it rules out all of the alternative suggestions the bill already made, so that may be a problem.

Fourth--  "accountability results shall be used as part of a comprehensive plan for a multi-faceted, wholistic, and rigorous approach to determine teacher evaluation and school performance" is, I suppose, a nice caveat about the limits of the test, but it imagines a system that doesn't yet exist. The whole multi-faceted wholistic rigorous thing is a lovely idea that nobody has actually designed. So this point boils down to, "Don't worry about being judged by these scores, because we will cover them with the dust of baby unicorn horns."

Fifth-- the bill requires that parents be informed of their rights to opt out of the BS Test, which won't officially exist any more after this bill is passed? Or they can opt out of whatever inappropriate substitute test is being offered? Or is this just the state reprinting the part of the ESSA that already says that parents have opt out rights?

So Pennsylvania struggles with the various practical challenges of implementing a bad policy. Meanwhile, those of us in the classroom continue to go from year to year wondering which version of the policy we'll be dealing with this year as we await our evaluations based largely on the results of tests that mean nothing to the students who take them.


  1. BEST LINE: "SO Pennsylvania struggles with the various practical challenges of implementing a bad policy..." This line exactly describes the last fifteen (and more) long years bent to NCLB, R2T, and now ESSA. Terrible policy -- and so much money spent forcing it all down the nation's throat.

  2. Pretty sure Dinniman is on the blended learning bandwagon. I've been trying to get a meeting to discuss it and he continually dodges. I think he's teamed up with the workforce readiness crowd and stoked opt out to push this forward. I am against these exit exams, but I feel that people should be aware that his intentions may not be pure.