(Editor's note: Information in this story was corrected at 8:30 a.m. and 3:05 p.m. today).
Gena Strawmire's son, an Altoona Area Junior, took Algebra II in ninth grade, totally skipping Algebra I because his grades in math were "very good," she said.
He continued to excel in math and was asked by his teacher to take the Advanced Placement statistics class this year. At the same time, he excels in honors trigonometry.
But in September, he informed her that he didn't score "proficient" in the Algebra I Keystone Exam.
"Now he has to retake this ridiculous exam," Strawmire said.
Keystone Exams, administered in three subjects last spring, are one component of the state's new graduation requirements and have been a key for the state's exit from the past era of federally mandated test requirements.
They have drawn the ire of parents, superintendents and students, but legislators defend them as a much needed, rigorous instrument for assessing student learning.
"How can a kid that can pull these grades not be 'proficient' in Algebra I? You can't get to this point without having the basic understanding of algebra. This is a perfect example of these tests not doing what they are supposed to," Strawmire said. "I'm not happy about this to say the least with all the other pressure that my son is under with homework, keeping up his good grades, extracurricular activities, working on an Eagle Scout project this year and the SAT looming."
This is only the beginning. The class of 2017 will be the first students whose graduation depends on proficient Keystone Exam scores.
The number of students who need to pursue romanticized and alternative options to Keystone could be difficult for districts to manage when the Keystone Exams are a potential block to a high school diploma, Jerry Oleksiak, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teacher union, told the Senate education committee in August.
One test not enough
Superintendent Thomas Otto learned as an undergraduate student taking his first course on assessment: "You can't truly base student learning on one test," he said.
Essays, conversations, projects and daily assessments are more effective measures of student learning than one test, he said.
He stressed that Keystone Exam questions can't encapsulate the demands of the state's new curriculum standards.
"Common Core wants higher order thinking. That means individuals are analyzing, synthesizing [finding ways to solve a problem] and solving it," he said.
"I don't know how you can build that into a test. One frustrating thing students say this year is that in common core questions, they are asked not describe how you solved this, but describe why you solved it the way you did."
Keystone tests are based on Pennsylvania Core Standards, a hybrid of state standards and the national Common Core Standards. The collective Keystone Exam scores of high school students were recently released and comprise a large portion of how high schools are judged by the state.
Otto believes the state and federal governments have overstepped their bounds with Keystone Exams.
"Because of a concern about education in general, there is a tremendous movement to quantify learning - reduce it to a score," Otto said. "That is an extremely dangerous way to go," he said. "Federal and state government has a role - to clearly define to school districts what is expected to be done. Then, they should turn that over to the superintendent to carry that out, and if the superintendent doesn't get it done, he gets fired by the school board."
Are schools trusted?
Speaking of the state's academic performance scoring system unveiled this month, Otto said he is glad that a school's impact on students' academic progress from year to year accounts for 40 percent of the state's judgment scale, but an equal amount of weight is placed on state exams.
The weight the state places on Keystone Exams is a sign that the state does not trust schools to "do what we need to do," he said.
"Legislators felt a need to take over what superintendents and school districts do."
While State Board of Education member Rep. James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, voted against state standards because of funding reasons, he is a supporter of Keystone Exams and believes students need to show, through state assessment, the necessary knowledge to move forward in their education.
"I don't know how you can say it is the function of a superintendent to set standards and guarantee performance. That's acting alone in a vacuum. You'd end up with 500 different measures of success in the state," he said. "I think of Keystone Exams as not one test, but a series of tests. For students who don't pass, there is remediation to re-capture what you missed. It doesn't seem to be an unreasonable way to do this," he said.
Bellwood Antis Superintendent Brian Toth agrees with Otto.
"I also believe that the policy makers have meddled too much in public education," he stated in an email. "I disagree with the state using the Keystone Exams to judge teachers, administrators and districts. Students all learn in many ways and should be assessed in many ways. Student learning should be based on the growth of a student's performance on multiple measures to include classroom work, diagnostic and performance based assessments."
Funding not adequate
One point Roebuck and the superintendents agree on is that the state is not funding schools enough to keep up with the required curriculum transition to the state's new standards and testing mandates.
Roebuck, a former history professor at Drexel University for 14 years, voted against the new standards Sept. 12 because the state is not providing schools the necessary funds to implement the new standards.
"Putting standards in place does assume you are going to be putting greater resources at play. That is one of the issues I raised at the state board level. It's absolutely unacceptable not to do that. It's totally unfair, and it's not filling state's responsibility to provide thorough education," he said.
Implementing the state's new standards alone is a slow moving and costly task, requiring districts to provide professional development for redesigning curriculum in all subjects and at all academic levels.
In addition, costs specific to Keystone Exams are for remediation and a system that provides alternative project opportunities for students who score poorly on the exams. Although Otto said he is glad the state offers students the ability to do a project instead of retaking the exam, he said the state has not described what the project should be.
Districts are incurring those costs at a time when schools have already forced to make program cuts because of the loss of nearly $1 billion in resources over the last few budget cycles.
"This school board has made a lot of hard decisions," Otto said of the Altoona Area board. "They cut costs so that schools had to be closed. It's becoming more and more difficult to strike that balance, between being responsible to taxpayers and providing education," Otto said.
"For example, school leadership may find the school needs a teacher, but because of finances, the discussion becomes, 'Should we reduce teaching positions?' We are reaching a critical stage to see how local school boards and districts are able to handle all these continual expectations."
Early opponent of exams
Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, is a member of the State Board of Education with Roebuck. He opposed Keystone Exams years ago when they were being developed.
"As the only member of the Senate Education Committee in 2010 to oppose the Keystone Exams, Senator Folmer shares the concerns with placing too much emphasis on testing," read an email sent by Folmer's staff in response to Otto's comments.
"However, no other means has been developed to measure student achievement so they, their parents, and taxpayers are able to assess progress."
Despite the upheaval in schools related to Pennsylvania Core Standards and Keystone Exams, the policy requiring the tests as a graduation requirement is not finalized.
The proposed regulations relating to Common Core and Keystone Exams were recently approved by the State Board of Education and formally submitted to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission for further review and public comment.
IRRC Executive Director David Sumner said the regulation imposing Keystone Exam proficiency as a graduation requirement is scheduled for commission consideration on Nov. 21.
The IRRC's five commissioners, four legislators appointed by legislative caucuses and one governor-appointed commissioner, will vote up or down on the regulation.
Sumner said the commission receives about 100 regulations from state agencies each year. The job of the commissioners is to determine whether they are in the best interest of the public based on factors including reasonableness, clarity and fiscal impact.
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.