So What Are the Keystone Exams?

End-of-course assessments—they'll be required soon for graduation—determine proficiency of some high school courses and will be given again in Baldwin-Whitehall starting on Jan. 9.

What Is Changing

It's not that Baldwin High School students shouldn't take standardized tests seriously. After all, it's their tests' scores that show how well their school is doing. And how well their school is doing tells employers and college admissions offices how good of an education that their prospects have gotten.

But the seriousness should see an uptick at Baldwin High soon—if it hasn't already—as the Keystone Exams begin their implementation at the high school level this school year.

Not only will students' performances on those examinations be placed on their transcripts starting with the 2016-17 school year, but also, if members of the Class of 2017 do not show proficiency on the Keystones, they won't be allowed to graduate (unless they complete a project of to-be-determined parameters).

It's not all gloom and doom, however, as Denise Sedlacek pointed out in an interview on Friday. Sedlacek, the Baldwin-Whitehall School District's assistant superintendent, said that the Keystones, which have replaced the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams (PSSAs) at the high school level, give students multiple chances to show proficiency of their subjects. And only a student's top Keystone scores will appear on his or her transcript.

School districts in general should see a significant benefit with the implementation of the Keystones, as well, since the timing of each Keystone subject exam—English Literature, Algebra I and Biology—coincides closer to when a student has actually taken that course than the PSSAs did.

Such is the nature of the Keystones, which are "end-of-course assessments," as the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) website calls them.

Sedlacek explained that, often, high-schoolers were seeing subject matter on the PSSAs that they hadn't experienced in a classroom in over two years. To that end, while the Keystones test 11th-grade proficiency, students in lower grades can still take them. And if those younger students show proficiency, they do not have to take those exams in future years.

"If you had Algebra I in eighth grade," Sedlacek said, "and then, you took the Algebra I (Keystone Exam) in Wave 1 in December as a ninth- or 10th-grader, your scores as a ninth- or 10th-grader will be banked. And you will not have to take it (Algebra I exam) as an 11th-grader.

"But those scores will count in your 11th-grade year toward adequate yearly progress (AYP)."

In theory, then, students will have a better chance of performing well on the Keystones than they did on the PSSAs.

And that's good news for everybody, since Baldwin-Whitehall—like all U.S. school districts—must show AYP in its students in accordance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The PDE used to determine AYP performance every year based solely on students' scores on the PSSAs, but the Keystones will have to be factored into that equation now for high-schoolers.

No Child Left Behind

NCLB requires that all students reach at least a proficient level in the subjects of reading/language arts (English Literature for the Keystones) and mathematics (Algebra I for the Keystones) by 2014 or else school administrators with students who aren't proficient must take extra, state-required steps to address those shortcomings.

The Keystones test Biology, as well, but Biology scores don't factor into NCLB requirements.

The Biology exams will be given in Baldwin-Whitehall starting on Jan. 9 (Wave 2), which follows the December (Wave 1) Algebra I and English Literature exams. Students can take all three exams again, if necessary (or for the first time), from May 13 to 24 and/or July 29 to Aug. 2.

Proficient students cannot retake the exams in order to improve their scores.

Regardless of their Keystone scores, intellectually disabled and learning-support students will be allowed to graduate based on their individualized education program (IEP) goals.

Why Biology, Too?

So why is Biology being tested if it's not required by NCLB?

"We are lacking in our Science scores as a country, and in Pennsylvania, Science is an important assessment," Sedlacek said. "It doesn't factor into No Child Left Behind, but because of NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and other studies that rank the United States far below other developed countries, (the PDE elected to test Biology)."

Additional subjects will be added to the Keystone Exams in future years, including Algebra II, Geometry and Civics & Government, among others.

What Are the Exams Like? When Do We See the Results?

There is no time limit for a student to complete a Keystone Exam, but each exam is designed to be completed by the typical student in 2 to 3 hours. There are two modules on each exam, and each module (or session) should take 1 to 1.5 hours to complete. School districts may elect to administer an entire Keystone Exam at once or administer each module on separate, consecutive days.

The Keystone Exams are available in both online and paper-pencil formats. Districts will determine if online, paper-pencil or both formats will be used locally. Makeup exams will also be administered in online and/or paper-pencil format.

Like the PSSAs, school district administrators will see the results of their students' Keystone Exams. Two copies of each individual student report will be sent by the PDE to the corresponding district office, with one copy then sent on to the corresponding parent(s)/guardians(s) and the other copy kept by the office.

Reports will be used for curricular and planning purposes. The PDE will also publically release school-by-school exam data.

Sedlacek said that she expects to see the Keystones' winter results some time in March.

Are Students Being Prepared?

In regard to the PSSAs and the Keystones, Sedlacek said that Baldwin-Whitehall teachers "don't teach to the test" but that the district's curriculum—aligned with the state's Common Core Standards—is structured to support preparation for the Keystones anyway.

And Baldwin-Whitehall students have already been taking classroom diagnostic assessments for reading, mathematics and science, which have given the district's educators precious results data that can be mined for use in nurturing or improving students' academic developments ahead of state assessments.

Often, teachers will intervene on the education of students who are under-performing on the state's standardized tests, and Baldwin-Whitehall's educators are no exception.

"Kids move in and out of different intervention groups," Sedlacek said of Baldwin-Whitehall's practice, "so that they're getting those basic skills, those building blocks and those foundations.

"We've spent a lot of time on data analysis ... so that we can really gauge and help make sure that we're teaching what we need to be teaching."

Do Assessments Tell the Whole Story?

State assessments are a sexy topic among residents of any school district who see them as an appropriate snapshot of their area's educational performance, but there is often more to their scores than meets the eye.

For example, the total amount of languages spoken by Baldwin-Whitehall's students is at 38 at last count, Sedlacek said, making it very difficult to communicate with every student, let alone guide them all to being academically proficient in each subject.

In some cases, not every student even has an appropriate interpreter, Sedlacek said.

And like many other school districts, Baldwin-Whitehall is faced with trying to achieve academic proficiency with a good number of students who are economically disadvantaged.

In its most recent rankings report of area districts, the Pittsburgh Business Times calculated that 31.5 percent of Baldwin-Whitehall students qualify as being economically disadvantaged in that they receive a free or reduced-cost lunch.

"One of the things that the research tells us is that students who are economically disadvantaged don't perform as well (on the state's standardized tests)," Sedlacek said.

Because poor scores in the subgroups of English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students and economically disadvantaged students may contribute to school districts failing to make AYP as a whole, Sedlacek said that it's important to keep things in perspective.

"What we want to look at is, 'Are we moving students (forward) that are economically disadvantaged, students who have an IEP? Are we making adequate yearly progress with those students through their movement from the beginning of the year to the end of year?'

"We want to make sure that we're leveling the playing field and that we're closing that achievement gap."

A tool like the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System, which can show if a student makes a year's worth of growth in reading, math, science and/or writing, regardless of where he or she started the year, is one way to tell if that's the case.

"Think about refugee population, who have never had formal schooling because they've been in refugee camps," Sedlacek said before stepping into the shoes of an economically disadvantaged and/or ESL student. "I may not be at a fourth-grade level, but I moved from a second-grade level to a third-grade level.

"I've improved my scores."

Sexy or not, fair or not, serious or not, the Keystones are coming. Are you ready? Is your son our daughter? Other thoughts on state assessments?

Converse with interested parties in the comments section below.


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NE12Ukid January 08, 2013 at 01:59 PM
This may be a good thing, time will tell. At least it appears to be better timed than the PSSAs, as the differences pointed out in the article show.
Robert Edward Healy, III January 08, 2013 at 08:43 PM
They definitely appear to be better-timed. I'm optimistic.
Sean Duggan January 09, 2013 at 02:21 PM
I'm all in favor of this. Did anyone read the recent test results, where 41% of Pittsburgh high-school students didn't know how to use the word "although" or "except" correctly? Children need more than functional illiteracy. They need to truly understand what they are reading.
NE12Ukid January 09, 2013 at 04:24 PM
No, I hadn't seen that particular point, Sean, but I see similar deficiencies in the posts of certain people on Patch. Not talking about a typo or quickspeak, but repeated misuse of common words. "accept/except" and "then/than" are two of the common ones that come to mind. Maybe someone should have tested them when they were ready to graduate HS? :-)
Common Sense January 10, 2013 at 04:42 AM
OMG! Txt u l8r! Ttyl! Students don't talk and communicate now a days like they did even as early as 10 years ago. They communicate via text or facebook instead of talking in person or on the phone and this lack of practicing how to communicate really hurts the students in different aspects that most of us take for granted.
Sean Duggan January 10, 2013 at 02:02 PM
@NE12Ukid: Indeed. Part of the problem is that such tests require school officials to be willing to take the next step of keeping the kids in school for another year or requiring meaningful remedial classes. As it is, my experience is that most school requirements lack a bite and therefore no one fears their bark. I think the problem is the combination of a number of factors. Grammar is not taught as intensively as it used to be (who out here remembers diagramming sentences?) and children don't read as much as they used to. And, as I understand it, they're often able to skate by on a surface understanding of the subject, learning to sound out the words and provide definitions without ever truly understanding the meaning.
Thomas Slovik May 16, 2013 at 02:24 AM
So let me get this straight... A student scores 1001 on the test (I don't know the scoring system) when 1000 is considered proficient. He is not allowed to retake. But a student scoring a 999 can retake up to 2x and improve his score to say 1200 ? Is that a fair comparison of the 1 timer to the do-over kid ? Hardly. Run away from common core. It will ruin our kids education.


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