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Wolf to sign law granting career-track students alternatives to Keystone exit exams

Natasha Lindstrom
| Tuesday, June 13, 2017, 8:36 p.m.
State House Speaker Mike Turzai
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
State House Speaker Mike Turzai

High schoolers in career technical education programs are close to securing legislative authority to shirk Pennsylvania's controversial exit exam if it becomes a graduation requirement.

Starting as soon as 2019, in order to graduate high school, students statewide may have to pass the Keystone Exams, a series of tests in Algebra, literature and biology. That means the test could be a mandatory exit exam for next school year's 11th-graders.

A bill headed to Gov. Tom Wolf's desk would amend the Public School Code to make accommodations for students in career technical education, or CTE, schools when it comes to the Keystones.

House Bill 202 — introduced in December by Reps. Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, and Mike Tobash, R-Pottsville — would allow students at vocationally and technically driven high schools to demonstrate competency through their grades and alternate assessments or industry-based certifications. Examples include national certification and licensing tests for nursing, auto repair and cosmetology.

Of course, the legislation "will not have a true implication unless and until the Keystones are required," noted Principal Eric Heasley of A.W. Beattie Career Center, which enrolls students from several communities across greater Pittsburgh, including Fox Chapel, Pine-Richland, Shaler and the North Hills.

However, the move recognizes the strength of CTE programs and their ability to prepare students to find meaningful work without going to a four-year college.

"It provides options for some students," Heasley said. "But the districts and the career centers are still going to have to work together" to ensure students pass either the Keystones or the alternative test.

Heasley said he'd prefer not to see high school diplomas tied to any single test.

The Keystone Exams — which have been administered to students but not a graduation requirement for several years — have spurred controversy among parents, teachers and school officials concerned that their full implementation will hold back students and increase dropout rates.

Critics have pressed lawmakers to rethink the exams as a requirement altogether.

HB 202 further would veer the state away from developing additional Keystone exams beyond the existing three subjects.

The legislation echoes a recommendation made last year by the state Department of Education's Act 1 report and garnered the support of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

HB 202 easily cleared the state House on a 187-0 vote in March, then cruised past the Senate, 49-0, last Tuesday.

Senate leaders signed the bill on Monday.

Wolf plans to sign the bill into law, governor's spokesman J.J. Abbott said late Tuesday.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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