Risks for Schools In High-stakes Tests
Second of three parts.
Upper Dublin High School had the 10th-highest SAT scores last year of any public school in Pennsylvania. It occupies a gleaming, just-completed, $119 million building where a sushi chef supplements the cafeteria offerings on Wednesdays. Its graduation rate exceeds 99 percent, and more than 95 percent of graduates go on to two- and four-year colleges.
Yet even here, teachers are worried about being able to get all their students to pass state exams in algebra, literature, and biology, which are set to be required for a diploma beginning with the current freshman class. So where does that leave the rest of Pennsylvania?
"It would be a shame if we set kids up for failure," said Dan Ortiz, a social studies teacher at Upper Dublin High, a 1,500-student school that was graced with the new building after a 2007 voter referendum.
With student diplomas potentially at stake, the pressures that high-poverty urban schools have experienced for years around standardized test scores may now be heading to the suburbs. For years, suburban educators have had far more instructional freedom because the stakes attached to testing didn't pose much threat to them.
But the new "Keystone exams" are significantly harder than the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests they replaced, and those tests were not required for graduation. During a trial administration of the Keystones in 2011, only 38.6 percent of students statewide passed in algebra, 35.7 percent passed in biology, and 49.9 percent passed in literature. In a federal grant application that year, state officials set a goal by 2015 of 66 percent passing algebra and 63 percent passing biology.
Students will have multiple chances to take the exams, and those unable to pass will be allowed to do projects in the same subjects instead. For those who still can't pass, superintendents may grant waivers to up to 10 percent, though districts that use that authority liberally will be required to submit a corrective-action plan.
A divided state Board of Education signed off on the graduation exams last month at the same time it approved Pennsylvania's version of Common Core, a set of national standards designed to make American students more competitive globally. No one on the board objected to the standards, but a vocal minority opposed the imposition of high-stakes tests with neither a cost estimate nor additional funds allocated for student remediation.
State board member and Democratic Sen. Andy Dinniman, who represents portions of Chester and Montgomery Counties, said that every superintendent in both those counties opposed the Keystone exams as a graduation requirement, but all were in favor of the Pennsylvania Core Standards.
That also seems to be the prevailing sentiment among teachers and administrators at Upper Dublin High, in Montgomery County outside Dinniman's district.
Several educators at the school said that they liked how the standards required reading and writing in every subject, not just English, and that they liked the collaboration among departments that was occurring as a result.
They praised the critical thinking that both the standards and the exams demanded, in contrast to the low-level memorization skills gauged on most state standardized tests.
But they were concerned about what the Keystone exams would mean for lower-performing students.
"They're going to struggle with it," said Mike Fogle, who teaches math subjects including Algebra 1, the Keystone-tested subject.
Added Ortiz: "For a majority of our kids, it might not be a concern, but we can't just go on a majority."
They also worry about what changes their school, which has never emphasized teaching to a test, will need to institute to ensure that no one is denied a diploma. "Will kids no longer be able to take electives so they can sit in a remedial math class?" asked principal Robert Schultz. The decision is his, technically, but will he really have a choice?
Electives are often the classes that give struggling students a reason to come to school, Schultz said, and he fears staff and students will get caught up in a time-consuming cycle of testing, remediation, and retesting.
(A student first takes a Keystone exam at the end of the related course - so the algebra Keystone could come as early as middle school - and then can keep retaking it until high school graduation.)
"I don't want to say it's much ado about nothing, because it's not nothing, but it's more ado about something than it should be," said the principal, who graduated from Upper Dublin High in the 1980s and now has a daughter there.
Rick Schmidt, a science teacher, questioned why knowledge of biology was considered an essential life skill for a high school graduate. In the workforce, he asked, "what is the essential nature of biology for most people to do what they need to do?"
In addition, he sees the biology Keystone as contradicting a central tenet of Common Core: to go deeper in fewer subject areas. "We're trying to hit everything," said Schmidt, recipient of a 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Around the country, many states are switching to one of two new national exams linked to Common Core. Those assessments are also more difficult than the state tests they are replacing, but not all states are using them as a graduation requirement. About half of the states have high school exit exams in some form. Of those, eight had linked their exams to Common Core or similar standards, and an additional 10 were looking into doing so, according to a 2012 report by the Center on Education Policy.
"Students who are already struggling ... will soon be expected to pass exit exams aligned to more rigorous standards," said the report's author, Shelby McIntosh, in a statement that accompanied the report's release, "and there's a good chance many will fail to do so."
At Upper Dublin High, English teacher Deborah Kim said she was excited about the standards' increased emphasis on nonfiction, even though it meant fewer novels.
"So far, I love it," Kim said. "It's a lot of work, but it's created so much energy in the teachers." At the same time, she said, "maybe I'm young and naive, but . . . if one day I had to teach to a test, I'm not really sure I could continue to do this. I teach because I believe in what I'm teaching."
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Trial Test:
38.6% Students statewide who passed in algebra.
35.7% Passed in biology.
Passed in literature.
This article was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.