PHILADELPHIA — School districts statewide will begin administering new standardized tests next week in math, English and science, exams that eventually all students will have to pass to earn a high school diploma.
The first wave of Keystone Exams starts Monday. Districts will begin testing all juniors in algebra 1, literature and biology; students in lower grades who have finished courses in those subjects will take the exams as well.
For 11th-graders, the Keystones replace the longstanding tests known as the PSSAs, or Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. Scores will have no bearing on students' academic records.
However, this year's eighth-graders will need to pass all three exams by their senior year in 2017 to graduate from high school.
Some districts are wary of the change. Students who took practice Keystone tests last year did not do well: less than 40 percent scored well enough to pass algebra I and biology, while about half made the grade in literature.
The suburban Philadelphia district of Council Rock is among those giving the exams next week. One concern is that many 11th-graders took algebra 1 so long ago that they need refresher lessons, Superintendent Mark Klein said.
The bigger issue, Klein said, is that while the district had a general idea how students would perform each year on the PSSAs, it's hard to predict how the new exams will match up with class material and teaching.
"We don't have a baseline for Keystones," he said.
State officials have attributed the poor showing on practice Keystones to unaligned curricula. Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said schools have been slowly shifting instruction toward the Common Core standard, on which the Keystones are based.
The tests, considered end-of-course assessments, are not pegged to a grade level. They feature multiple-choice and short-answer questions and are not timed; each exam is expected to take two to three hours. Students who fail any test can retake it multiple times.
The first Keystone testing window runs from Monday through Dec. 14. Other testing dates are Jan. 9-23, May 13-24 and, for summer school, July 29-Aug. 2.
Beginning with the juniors' results this year, state officials want English and math Keystones to replace the PSSAs for calculating the federal benchmark known as AYP — or "adequate yearly progress." Federal officials have not yet sanctioned the change, but Eller said the state expects approval since the Keystones are more rigorous than the PSSAs.
Starting with the class of 2019, students will have to pass Keystones in algebra 1, literature, biology and composition. For the class of 2020, students must pass those four plus a test in civics/government.
As funding allows, more Keystones will be developed in subjects such as chemistry, geometry, algebra 2 and world history. Those could be used for additional graduation requirements as districts see fit, Eller said.
State regulators first approved the Keystones in 2009. The tests were originally supposed to count as part of a student's course grade, but that is no longer true.
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