High school students face Keystone Exams starting today. It will be the second year that the exams in math, science and literature will be administered.
The exams are supposed to show whether students have learned class material. A problem last year was that many students who passed the class failed the exam. As the exams become more enmeshed with curriculum, educators are using methods to place students in courses based on predictions of how they would perform on the exams.
At the Hollidaysburg Area School District, educators have collected data showing that 17 students in eighth-grade will not likely pass the biology Keystone Exam next year, even though those students are probably going to pass the class with a C. So those students who planned to take honors biology will be guided to a less advanced course instead.
"This allows the time to best prepare kids to pass the Keystones," Hollidaysburg Area Curriculum Director Francine Endler said.
Using data to align curriculum, modify instruction and help determine course selection is a frequently used practice, according to state Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller.
However, when it comes to one test deciding a student's course placement, parents like Beth Hemengway, who has a son in high school at Hollidaysburg, think the data overlook their child's desire and ability.
"The school is bullying kids into lower classes," she said.
"I have a child who's proven that he can do the work. I resent being told this is a good choice because he can't pass one test."
She said her son has carried a low B to a high C in honors algebra. She said her son's goal is to take calculus, and if it wasn't for the exam, he would be on that trajectory.
Her son is among the students who are forecast to possibly pass an honors class in a subject but fail the corresponding Keystone Exam. Opting out of honors classes would give her son more time to cover the material.
"I feel bad for the school because the state left the school no choice," Hemengway said, lamenting pressure of Keystone Exams put on districts by the state.
But it's an exam students, parents and educators want to turn out well for a few reasons. One, Keystone Exams determine whether students pass a course, regardless of passing grades earned up to that point. Also, Keystone scores are also used by the state to provide a public profile of schools' education quality.
The options for students who fail Keystone Exams are to be enrolled in remediation the next semester and retake the test or complete an alternative project in place of retaking a Keystone Exam.
Students choosing remediation would likely have to give up enjoyable elective courses that round out a class schedule. Instead, to stay on a trajectory for graduation, their class schedules consist of core subjects and remediation in core subjects for which they previously failed a Keystone Exam.
For students choosing to complete a project alternative to Keystone Exams, they may be uncertain of how that would look on a transcript.
At Bellwood-Antis School District, data is also used to indicate which students are not going to pass the exam.
"We know who is going to need remediation," high school Principal Lisa Hartsock said.
"Instead of pigeonholing them into lower classes," she said, the district provides extra academic help prior to the students taking the test in hopes that they will pass.
If students master certain standards, they will have a better future. That's the point of Keystone Exams, said Luke Lansberry, Altoona Area director of curriculum instruction and assessment.
"There are mindsets in school communities where we have parents and kids thinking that the only thing we do is prepare them for the state exam. I say to faculty, we need to be careful about the message we are sending. A test is one snapshot," he said."The work we do in schools is not for people in Harrisburg."
Recommendations to enroll students in courses are made because Altoona Area educators are looking out for students using a variety of assessments.
"We pride ourselves on being in tune with the needs of our learners," he said. "We want kids to succeed."
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.