Several area superintendents are cheering proposed legislation that would delay requiring high school students to pass end-of-the-year exams to graduate.
But local leaders want to see the move taken a step further. They say the Keystone Exams — made up of algebra, biology and literature — should be shuttered as a graduation requirement, and school officials should be able to decide what students need to do in order to receive their diploma.
Their feelings follow an earlier unanimous state Senate vote on a bill that would postpone the exams as a graduation requirement until the 2018-19 academic year.Now the bill needs approval from the state House.
“I definitely agree with the Senate bill that a delay of the Keystone exams as a requirement for graduation is in order,” Bradford Area School District Superintendent Katharine Pude said on Monday. “When the law was originally written, it didn’t take into account the many factors that could hinder students as well as add additional financial strain on districts throughout the Commonwealth.”
Students who receive a poor grade on the Keystone Exams would need to enroll in remedial classes or pass a project-based assessment to graduate — “even if they successfully pass the course as outlined by their district,” Pude said.
Many students throughout the state would be left with a choice: Focusing on remedial coursework rather than taking a class that would prove to be more beneficial to them, such as career and technical education courses, she pointed out.
“If students still are unable to pass the singular assessment, they are required to complete project-based assessments,” Pude said. “These assessments will require districts to add additional staff to pay for the tutoring and proctoring of the assessment.”
In his view, Otto-Eldred School District Superintendent Matthew Splain pointed to local and state spending with the Keystone Exams, questioning if the tests are even worth the effort.
The Otto-Eldred district has already put resources into remediating students to pass the Keystone Exams. That includes teachers working outside of normal school hours, Splain said.
That school district isn’t alone.
“In the Kane Area School District we have already started remediating, as well as planning and beginning the project-based assessments. Needless to say this involves time from our professional staff, planning by our administrators and resources,” said Kane Area School District Superintendent Robert Gaetano.
In the meantime, school officials will continue remediation efforts. Leaders believe that students need to learn the skills, he said.
“However, we will stall the project-based assessments because I still think a change in those procedures looms as well,” Gaetano said. “As I have mentioned before, I think the goal of education is losing its focus. I continue to believe that it should be to get every student to reach their potential and not rely so much on the high-stakes testing.”
That’s not fair for students or teachers, he said.
“Decisions like this one (proposed legislation), albeit a good one, is just another example of the moving targets. We still need to see of the governor puts his stamp of approval on it,” Gaetano said.
For his part, Smethport Area School District Superintendent Charles Leasure said he finds it difficult to “hit a moving target” and is not sure what to tell the students, parents and teachers about the Keystone Exams.
“It’s difficult to plan when things keep changing,” he said.
In neighboring Elk County, St. Marys Area School District Superintendent Brian Toth said he is happy the graduation requirement for the exams has been postponed, but wishes it would be taken off the table for good.
Toth pointed out the algebra portion of the Keystone Exams should be used to measure just that — how students are performing on that subject.
Back at Otto-Eldred, Splain said he finds the tests a good way to prepare students for college and/or a career. But as a graduation requirement, that’s not the case, Splain said.
“As the tests have been rolled out to districts through the Commonwealth, I believe that original premise has come into question,” Port Allegany School District Superintendent Gary Buchsen said. “Now, this has become as much of a fiscal issue as an academic issue with schools districts and the state trying to solve the financial riddle of who and how are you going to pay for those students who cannot attain proficiency on these literature, algebra and biology tests.”
In the end, Pude said she is an advocate for local control of graduation requirements and is hoping “that our legislators eventually come to the realization that it is in the best interest of our students to return graduation requirements back to the districts.”