York County administrators divided on ditching Keystone exam

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale talks with York County School of Technology students as part of his tour of the school Monday, May 6, 2019. DePasquale appeared at the school to highlight the impact technical education can have on workforce development. Bill Kalina photo

Some local superintendents are open to a switch to the SATs over the state's high school Keystone exams, but others question if the change would help or if standardized testing is worthwhile.

In a report released earlier this month, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said that the federally required Keystone exam cost the state's taxpayers $425 million over the last 10 years. DePasquale argued a switch to college readiness exams, the SAT or ACT, could save the state millions. 

"I think it's a good thing that we're having conversations about a better way," said York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams.

Schools should be able to use local assessments to inform instruction rather than state and federal mandates, said West York Area Superintendent Todd Davies. Right now it's a "broken system" because officials don't even get data back in time to make changes, he said.

Williams said he's not sure if any assessment thoroughly determines student progress and that big assessment companies are "profiting immensely" from standardized testing laws.

Since 2015, states have been free to choose more cost-effective tests that are not state-specific, but Pennsylvania kept its contract with Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp.

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Pennsylvania signed a new contract with DRC in 2016, which extends until at least June 2021. The Keystone exams were still a graduation requirement under state law until 2018.

Davies said he understands the need for a transition period rather than an immediate switch, but he agrees there's a better use for tax dollars. Lawmakers should figure out how to pay for the testing before mandating it, he said, because property owners are paying the most.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act made the Keystone exam a graduation requirement for Pennsylvania students, but it was later replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

While states are still required to administer standardized tests under the act, they can now be national tests such as the SAT or ACT.

At least 12 states have already switched, DePasquale said in his report, and they are more effective than the Keystones in preparing students for secondary or technical education, without the level of disparity in wealthier districts scoring higher. 

Fifty-eight of the 100 top performing high schools on the Keystones were in districts in the top 100 with the highest per-capita income based on the most recent Census data, the report states.

Local districts are open to the state exploring these options but are hesitant to replace testing with another one-size-fits-all assessment that doesn't best serve all students.

The SAT is probably inappropriate unless every student is testing for college, Williams said. 

For Dover Area School District, it's important right now to keep the Keystone because it returns student data aligned to the state's core standards, and the district's priority is improving its achievement scores, said Superintendent Tracy Krum.

More:State report card: York City district excels in growth; Central York, Dover struggle

"We don't have time to waste," she said. "We look very closely at the data."

Though it's no longer a statewide graduation requirement, the Keystones are still used by the state to comply with accountability requirements for the ESSA. Each state should have 95% participation on state exams, according to the state Department of Education.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera wrote in a letter this past week that DePasquale's report was "oversimplified."

Many states ran into difficulties transitioning state-specific Common Core standards implemented in 2010 to national assessments, he said in the letter. To change a secondary level assessment, each state is bound by the ESSA, Tile I regulations and peer review requirements, Rivera added.

As of July 8, no state proposing to use the SAT or ACT has met all those requirements, and no national standardized test is aligned to Pennsylvania's standards, he claimed. In addition, national tests were not created with input from local educators.

The state allows students to opt out of standardized tests for religious reasons, and Central York School District spokeswoman Julie Randall Romig has said there's a growing number of parents and guardians questioning state-level assessments. 

Opting out is a growing trend across the country, she has said.

Beginning in the 2021-22 school year, students will have multiple options to prove graduation readiness, DePasquale reports.

Since 2015, the Keystones have cost the state about $100 million — including an associated pre-testing platform — to administer, and most federal funding goes to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments, the report states.

Providing the SAT or PSAT exam in place of the Keystone could save at least $1 million annually, DePasquale stated.

Rivera also noted in his letter that cost estimates could be higher because it would be necessary to develop new curriculum, purchase new materials and realign professional development to the new assessment.

He added that over the past four years, costs for both the Keystones and all standardized assessments dropped about 30%.

Furthermore, the auditor general asserted a lack of transparency with DRC, including difficulty accessing contracts.

“My team had to make repeated requests to PDE officials just to get basic information about public tax money that should be available to anyone who asks,” DePasquale said in a news release July 10. “We waited months for information that they promised to share, but it was only yesterday that the agency started answering our remaining questions.”

He made several recommendations in his report, including state funding for all standardized tests and a request for the department to explore the more cost-effective SAT or ACT option.

The state Department of Education is willing to consider a high school exam other than the Keystones pending federal approval, The Associated Press reports.