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Current high school freshmen, courtesy of a bill signed by Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday morning, will potentially be the first class required to pass the Keystone Exams when their time to graduate comes in 2019.

Senate Bill 880, which delays implementing the end-of-course proficiency exams as a high school graduation requirement for at least two years, was unanimously passed by both the House and the Senate before it was presented to the governor at the end of January.

“While we should have high academic and educational standards in the commonwealth, there have been issues with the implementation of the Keystone exams, which is why I am signing a bill to delay their use as a graduation requirement,” Wolf said during a news conference. “My administration is currently engaging teachers, administrators and students, community leaders, stakeholders and advocates from around the state to develop a comprehensive school accountability system that will support schools and help Pennsylvania students succeed.”

Failing: Among those issues is how to handle those students who do end up failing the exams, said West York Area Superintendent Emilie Lonardi.

As it currently stands, students who fail the exams twice are entitled to supplemental instruction and have the option of taking a project-based assessment under a teacher’s supervision. However, the state has yet to provide clear guidelines for the process, Lonardi said.

"It’s all well and good to say it’s a component of graduation, but then when students don’t pass, what’s in place?" she said. "While they’ve talked about a project, they’ve been very unclear about what that looks like. It becomes difficult for us to work on it without some guidance from them because what we do may not be what they're expecting. We already do a project, but I’m sure theirs would have different components."

The number of students failing to demonstrate proficiency on the exams — which test ability in Algebra 1, biology and English and language arts — even after a retake has been high, Wolf said in a news release.

"It's hard for kids to be excited about school when they have to take remediation again and again because they can’t pass a math test," said Barbara Rupp, superintendent at South Western School District.

Rupp said many school districts have spent a lot of funds on classes and coaches for those who don't pass, but one of her main concerns is those students' growing frustration.

"Some of those kids are starting to lose interest in school, and that's the last thing we want," she said.

A caveat of the bill requires the Department of Education to investigate alternative methods for students to demonstrate proficiency for graduation beyond just the use of the exams and then present a report of its findings within six months.

"I'm glad they're going to delay it until they get their act together so that they may offer the appropriate guidance," Lonardi said. "And it would be very nice if they put in the appropriate funding so that we could do the extra work, so the teachers could do the extra work with the students who don’t pass the test. We’re definitely in favor of the delay."

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.

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