Next month, secondary students across the state will sit for the first Keystone Exams, which are intended to be the state's new achievement barometer for high school students, eliminating the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams.
Keystone Exams in Algebra 1, biology and literature will be given to students in grade 11 starting on Dec. 3. Districts can choose from four testing windows: Dec. 3-14; Jan. 9-23; May 13-24; and July 29-Aug. 2. The July-August window is for students attending summer school.
The Keystone Exams are expected to be significantly harder than the old 11th-grade PSSA tests and are based on the new Common Core State Standards. The standards are built on the idea that all elementary and secondary students should learn certain skills and information no matter where they live.
In Kentucky, the first state to test the Common Core, results from 2011-12 showed the percentage of students scoring proficient dropped by a third or more among elementary and middle school students. In reading, 48 percent of elementary, 46.8 percent of middle school and 52.2 percent of high school students tested proficient. In math, the percentage of students testing proficient in those groups was 40.4 percent, 40.6 percent and 40 percent.
The Keystones are designed as end-of-course exams that in the future will be given to students in the same year they complete the courses. But this year, all 11th-grade students will take the tests, regardless of the fact that many may be several years beyond completing the subjects.
State education officials have said the Keystones will replace the 11th-grade PSSAs as the measure of adequate yearly progress, known as AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for high school students. The PSSAs still will be given and used to determine AYP in grades 3-8.
But officials with the U.S. Education Department said Pennsylvania has not received official approval to replace the PSSAs with the Keystones. Nor has the department approved standards submitted by the Pennsylvania Education Department for determining whether districts, schools or subgroups achieve AYP on the Keystones.
This marks the second time in recent months state education officials have moved forward with changes in state tests without official approval from federal officials. In September, the state Education Department eased achievement rules for charter schools without waiting for necessary federal approval, resulting in an increase of 44 schools achieving AYP.
Nevertheless, the state is moving full steam ahead. Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Education Department, said the department "is confident that it will receive approval to use the Keystone Exams for the purposes of adequate yearly progress."
Local district officials plan to give the Keystones to 11th-graders in either December or January in order to give them a chance to retest in the spring if they don't score proficient or advanced in the first round. This is the first time exams will be offered online, and statewide, 190 school districts, charter and other schools will take that option.
"We will be doing the second wave in January, and the state has promised us they will have results back before the spring session," said Harry Baughman, director of secondary curriculum and transformation coordinator at McKeesport Area School District.
With the exams being given so long after some students have taken the courses, educators worry about how much students will have retained.
"We are required to give it to 11th-graders, but we have some students who will be taking the Algebra 1 test who haven't seen the material since eighth grade. This is going to be interesting," said Jillian Bichsel, director of academic services in the Quaker Valley School District.
She said teachers in the district are trying to prepare students for the tests, but it's difficult without seeing the format. She said district officials have reviewed sample test questions on the state Education Department's Standards Aligned System website.
"What we are learning is that the questions are much more rigorous and at a higher depth of knowledge level. There's more application and analysis," Ms. Bichsel said.
According to the state website, each of the three subject tests will include two modules, with each test expected to take a total of about 2.5 hours to complete.
The Algebra 1 test will cover operations and linear equations and inequalities, and linear functions and data organization. The biology test will cover cells and cell processes, and the continuity and unity of life. The literature exam will include fiction and nonfiction and will provide passages for students to read and then answer questions.
Each exam will have a majority of multiple-choice questions and eight open-ended questions. Each answer will be graded on a scale of 1-4 points.
School officials say it's unclear at this point what benchmarks will be used to determine AYP on this year's Keystones. For the 2013 PSSA, statewide targets are for 91 percent of students to test proficient or advanced in reading and 89 percent in math.
However, trial Keystone exams administered voluntarily in 2010-2011 showed only 39 percent scored proficient or advanced in Algebra 1, 36 percent in biology and 50 percent in literature.
As a result, the state Education Department has submitted a request for new targets for the Keystone exams to the U.S. Education Department. The state is awaiting a response.
By the Class of 2017, the state will require the Keystones in the three subjects to be part of high school graduation requirements. Those students -- now in eighth grade -- must score proficient or advanced on the Keystones or prove their proficiency in a project-based evaluation or locally developed test to graduate.
Pittsburgh Public Schools will institute the Keystone-related requirement sooner, applying it to current pupils in grades 8-11.
This school year, in addition to giving the Keystones to high school juniors, districts also will administer them to students in lower grades who are enrolled in Algebra1, biology and literature.
Because PSSAs still will be given to students in grades 3-8, some students will be required to take both the PSSAs and the Keystones, such as seventh- and eighth-graders taking Algebra 1.
The state Education Department plans to have remaining PSSAs fully based on the Common Core standards by 2014-15.
Students who take the Keystones before 11th grade will have their scores banked until then. If they scored proficient or advanced on an exam, they won't have to take it again. If they didn't score at least proficient, they will repeat the test until they reach proficiency or have the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency through a project-based evaluation or locally developed test.
The state Board of Education voted in May to move forward with the Keystone Exams in the three subject areas, though a plan it passed in 2010 called for the state to develop 10 Keystone Exams in various disciplines and require students to test proficient in six of them.
Under the latest plan, there will be five Keystone exams, with composition added for the class of 2019, and civics and government for the class of 2020.
Some educators said that when the exams are given to all students when they complete the tested courses, the tests will be a more fair measure of students' mastery than the PSSAs.
While there may be a drop in the percentage proficient on the 2012-13 exams, Ed Colebank, director of academics, information and technology in the Steel Valley School District, said, "I think you will see more positive results across the board in all districts in the future."
Mary Niederberger: email@example.com or 412-263-1590.