Friday, August 31, 2018

PA: Better Than a Graduation Test

Pennsylvania's end of the year test faces a new challenge from the legislature, and if you're in the Keystone State, you may want to give your favorite legislator a call.

In Pennsylvania, we actually have two flavors of the Big Standardized Test that everyone is mandated to inflict on students as a means of evaluation schools and teachers. For the elementary and eight grade students, we have the PSSA test. But our high school students take the Keystone exam.

There are many problems with the Keystone Exam. If I were still in the classroom, I would be forbidden by law and by the test-givers "code of ethics" to so much as look at the test, but now that I'm retired I can tell you that it has problems such as questions that are essentially vocabulary quizzes. I can also tell you that it's fond of questions where it gives the student a reasonably familiar word in an unusual context and asks the student to define the word based on context; this kind of "gotcha" question is a common feature. The Keystone, like many such BS Tests, likes the mind-reading in which students are supposed to discern the author's purpose. It also likes the "which sentence is best" question. All poorly written and designed not to see what the students know, but to trick the students into selecting the wrong answer.

Not that students feel the need to engage in this battle with the test writers, because the Keystones are zero-stakes tests for students.

Yes, in Pennsylvania, teachers and schools are evaluated based on a test that means nothing to the students taking it.

Now, that's not entirely by design. We were going to phase these in and after a couple of years, the tests would be a state graduation requirement for Pennsylvania students. But then that deadline approached, and legislators realized that a huge number of Pennsylvania students would be kept from getting a diploma for no reason other than this test that the state was making them take. And so legislators have flinched several times and pushed back the year in which students will have to pass the Keystone Exams. There are three-- reading, math and biology-- although there were going to be many more until it turned out that creating all those tests would be both hard and expensive. The whole history of testing in PA is the story of the ship of grand aspirations run aground on the hard shoals of reality.

Anyway, we're still in a holding pattern, waiting for the moment when the legislature thinks that more students will be above average. Okay, not exactly: The Keystone exams are theoretically standards-referenced, which should mean that everyone can pass. But it should also mean that we can get test results literally five minutes after the student finishes the test, but we're still waiting months. Why is that? Maybe because of something called scaling, which seems like a fancy way to explain different weights for different questions on different forms of the test. Or maybe it has to do with rangefinding, which seems an awful lot like norm-referencing-- collect answers and see what their distribution looks like. I get into all that more here.

Last year the legislature and governor (who are not always best buds) opened up an alternative route for career and technical students-- CTE students could prove their career readiness through tests actually related to their careers. For instance, welding students take a variety of tests to become certified as welders; Pennsylvania now says that's good enough to graduate, never mind the Keystones.

Now Senator Thomas McGarrigle is back with a bill that proposes other ways to take some of the bite out of the Keystone Exams, based on a fully sensible premise: recognizing that "success after graduation looks different for each student and that requiring a high-stakes, one-size-fits-all pathway to graduation does not provide an accurate representation of students’ abilities or likelihood for success in the future."

What are the specifics of the SB1095?

Composite Scoring

Rather than scoring "proficient" on all three tests, the bill would call for a satisfactory combined score from all three. Students could score "proficient" on just one test and "basic" on the other two. The secretary of education will set the satisfactory score and it will take an act of the General Assembly to change it.

Another Delay

Originally the Class of 2017 was going to have to pass the Keystones to graduate. Currently the Class of 2020 would be the first. This bill kicks the can down to 2021.

Supplemental Instruction

The school can offer extra instruction to students who don't make it (but the school may not require it). That extra schooling is not allowed to interfere with their regular schooling; in other words, the infamous practice of pulling a student out of regular courses for a bunch of test prep remediation is banned. Telling a vocational student that he can't attend his vocational classes until he's finished remediating is banned. The school can give the student a chance to supplement his instruction, but they may not hold his real education hostage to do so. This is a Good Thing.

This, Because...?

"No public school entity may be required to offer, nor may any student be required to participate in or complete, a project-based assessment as provided for in 22 Pa. Code 4.51c."

The Special Ed Loophole

A student with special needs who completes the requirements of his IEP but doesn't "otherwise meet the requirements of this section" must be given a regular high school diploma. Of course, any school can screw with this by writing Keystone Exam proficiency into the IEP. Smart parents will refuse, and smart schools will go along and wink wink nudge nudge some opting out, since that lets them drop some of the lowest test-takers' scores from the school evaluation.

A Whole Pack Of Alternative Assessments

A student "will be deemed proficient" if she does both of the following:

1)  Gets good grades in the "associated academic content areas of the Keystone Exams." These "grade-based requirements" are locally set.


2) Any of the following:

Gets a recommended-by-the-secretary score on the appropriate AP or IB exams

Gets an ASVAB score sufficient to qualify for military enlistment

Shows official notification that they will enter a registered apprenticeship program after high school

Gets a secretary-approved score on the SAT or ACT

Shows they've been accepted by "an accredited nonprofit institution of higher learning

Some other piece of compelling evidence that shows the student is ready for college, career, or the military


The Secretary of Education is directed to report on how all this is working out.

One Weird Piece of Leverage

All of these alternatives are listed as existing in any year that the Keystone Exams are required for graduation. Which means, I presume, that if the Keystones are never required for graduation, all the rest of this stuff evaporates.

Who Likes This

The Pennsylvania School Board Association likes this. PSEA likes this. The PA Senate has already unanimously liked it, and now we're just waiting on the House.

And really, everyone should like this, because it takes the radical step of trying to judge college and career readiness by means other than a Big Standardized Test that's not even a very good test. If you're looking at all the alternative paths and thinking that under this bill pretty much nobody would need to take the BS Test, well, yes, I think you're correct-- and that's a good thing. Or to put it another way, why would we want to tell a student who has passed all their required classes, been accepted to college, or already started on a work or military plan that all that is going to be thrown out because of the results of a single standardized test.

No, this isn't perfect. And yes, there are a million conversations we need to have about the whole "college and career ready" issue. And yes, the SAT and ACT are probably not a great measure of anything, either. But it is still a huge improvement.

If you are in PA, this page has a simple link for sending your representative a note to support this bill. And here's another one. The bill is currently trapped in committee and needs to be sent out for a vote soon. This is soon. Send your note now.

Note. Some local school district administrations will grumble because in anticipation of the state's eventual action, many local districts have made the Keystones a local graduation requirement, even though the state never said they had to. Some may grump that this will require them to retool their system. Tough. If their system counts the Keystones as a graduation requirement, their system is seriously flawed and they should be delighted to have the chance to fix it.

1 comment:

  1. It's about time the legislature came to their senses about the Keystones. When I was teaching in PA (biology) we lived in dread of the day when the graduation requirement would be enforced and we'd have to manage all the "alternative projects" that would allow that 50% (or more) of students who couldn't pass the Keystone in one or more subjects to graduate, since the time required for this would have pretty much ended any possibility that we'd be able to do our damned jobs. For the sake of the vast majority of PA students, I really hope this passes and is signed into law.