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Delay in Keystone Exam program still sought

| Sunday, June 2, 2013, 12:16 a.m.

With questions still swirling about proposed changes to state-mandated curriculum and student assessment, Alle-Kiski Valley school district leaders say Senate Democrats' call to halt the implementation isn't such a bad idea.

In mid-May, senators said they want Gov. Tom Corbett to stop the process in order to give the Legislature time to thoroughly review a state Department of Education proposal.

The department wants to use the Keystone Exams as a high school graduation requirement for the Class of 2017 and adopt the PA Common Core, a nationally developed set of academic standards.

There are currently three Keystone Exams, which are rigorous, end-of-course type exams in Algebra I, biology and English literature.

This is the first school year that students statewide took the tests.

“The tests are all relatively difficult,” said Valley High School Principal Jon Banko, “and if the teacher says a student has done a satisfactory job (and passes the course), and then to have the state turn around and say the kid can't graduate because they didn't pass that test … It's a tough pill for districts to swallow.”

Senate leaders said it could cost districts statewide an additional $300 million to implement the Keystones and new standards.

But the Education Department contends costs associated with the new standards would be offset by the elimination of some current requirements.

Following the request from Senate Democrats, Corbett consulted with the Legislature and directed the Education Department to recommend minor modifications to the regulations, said department spokesman Tim Eller.

He asked the State Board of Education to consider the amendments in July, Eller said. If approved, the regulation changes would go to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, then to the attorney general.

The State Board, on which the House and Senate education committee majority and minor leaders have seats, works with the Education Department to develop and adopt regulations for basic and higher education.

Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, intends to schedule a committee hearing as soon as possible to get more information on the proposed mandates.

“I want to get to what's this really going to cost, and get real information and dispel misinformation,” he said. “There is so much misinformation surrounding this. I want to make sure we're doing what is best for students.”

Making the tests a graduation requirement has been in the works for some time now. So many districts, believing the changes were certain, already have taken steps to prepare by revising curriculum and creating remediation classes for students who fail a Keystone.

“We get samples of what will be on the Keystone Exams and will make sure that they are covered in our curriculum,” said Matt Kruluts, K-12 principal in the Leechburg Area School District. “We have spent a lot of time organizing our courses to meet the needs of the Keystone Exams.”

New Kensington-Arnold School District Superintendent John Pallone, a former state representative who was on the House Education Committee, said he is against high-stakes testing.

“I was not in favor of using standardized testing as a criteria to establish success and graduation,” he said during his tenure in the Legislature. “I probably still don't agree that the standardized test alone should be the sole measure for graduation or not. … It can't be any one factor saying, ‘You're going to accomplish or you're not.' ”

That's one reason why Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, who represents much of the A-K Valley, introduced legislation to create a bipartisan commission to review and recommend changes to the state's current student assessment methods.

His bill is part of the Senate Democrats' efforts to review the Common Core and Keystones.

“I have made it clear that I think standardized testing is flawed, and it has been for quite some time,” Brewster said. “If you're a teacher and you have a class with a number of students with learning disabilities, they take the same test as a teacher with all accelerated students.

“That, in and of itself, should tell you it's not a fair test.”

He believes the state needs to listen to education stakeholders when developing a test to assess students' basic skills.

“What I suggested is to make (the commission) bipartisan, include teachers, parents, students, the (Pennsylvania) School Boards Association, unions and superintendents,” Brewster said. “We need to stop dictating what's good for somebody else.”

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com. Staff writers Brian Rittmeyer and Tom Yerace contributed.

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