Poor PSSA scores presage poor Keystone Exam scores

Background: In Policy Brief Vol. 22, No. 13, the Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement were shown to be a very severe problem for Pennsylvania’s system of public education. In 2021, of the juniors taking the tests 37.6 percent failed to score at the proficient level in math and 50 percent in English (note that only 11 percent of 11th graders took the English portion of the exams.)

If the initial provision that required proficiency on the exams were still in effect, nearly 40 percent of 2022 seniors hoping to graduate would not have received diplomas. However, as the earlier Brief noted, the requirement has been postponed several times and now is slated to go into effect in 2023, barring yet another legislative postponement to go with the four that have already been enacted.

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PSSA scores as a leading indicator

But the Keystone Exams are not the only state-required achievement tests that point to serious educational deficiencies in Pennsylvania’s public schools.  Indeed, one explanation of why the high percentages of students scoring below proficient on Keystone tests in 2021—and preceding years—can be found in the surprisingly poor scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests in earlier years dating to 2015.  Bear in mind that 11th-grade Keystone test takers in 2021would have been in 8th grade in 2018. 

Making the reasonable assumption that the overwhelming majority of the 8th-grade cohort in 2018 made up the 11th grade test takers in 2021, the PSSA scores of those 8th-graders in 2018 should be fairly good predictor of 11th-grade Keystone Exams performance in 2021. And, indeed, they are.  On the PSSA math test, 69 percent of 8th-grade test takers statewide in 2018 failed to score at the proficient level and 38.5 percent were below proficient on the English test.

Note that 2018 was not an anomaly for PSSA results. The 11th graders would have been in 7th grade in 2017. That year 62 percent of 7th graders failed to achieve the proficient level in math and 41.5 percent were below proficient in English. And the pattern continues back to 2016 when the group was in the 6th grade. That year, 59 percent of 6th-grade test takers were below proficient in math and 38.4 percent were below proficient in English.

Thus, large percentages of below-proficient students in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades that went on to make up the preponderance of 11th graders taking the Keystone Exams in 2021 were simply moved up each year to the next grade despite not being able to do grade-level math or English or both. Why would it be a surprise that the 69 percent of students who were not proficient in 8th-grade math failed in large numbers to score at the proficient or higher level on the 11th-grade math test despite the test being given at the end of the Algebra I course they had presumably just passed? 

It is important to mention here that the percent scoring below proficient on the 2019 math Keystone Exam was 36.7 percent, quite close to the 2021 level of 37.6 percent. Thus, any pandemic-induced effect was fairly minimal for the math exam. However, the number of test takers was down 31 percent, which might have affected the result. Over the longer period since 2015, the percentage below proficient, except for a dip in 2016, has moved upward marginally from the 35.5 percent figure posted in 2015 (the first publicly released numbers) to reach the 36.7 percent mark in 2019.

Poor test scores point to a need for massive reforms   

All the forgoing recitation of unfortunate test scores suggests there is a huge failure of public education in Pennsylvania. Either that or the achievement tests being administered are far too hard and need to be re-designed.  In that regard, consider that even schools with superb academic rankings do not have all students scoring proficient in 8th-grade math.

For instance, in 2018 Julia Masterman in Philadelphia, which perennially ranks near the very top in the state academically, had 7 percent of 8th graders failing to reach proficiency in math. Note, too, that according to School Digger rankings for 2021, Peters Township Middle School, 10th ranked of 797 middle schools in the state and the second best in Southwest Pennsylvania, had 17.9 percent of 8th graders score below proficient in math in 2018.  Another strong school, Jefferson Middle in Mt Lebanon (11th ranked in the state), had 27 percent below proficient. In short, very good schools still posted what would normally be considered worrisome levels of below-proficient scores.

Meanwhile, in 2018, Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) had two schools with zero percent of test takers scoring proficient and three schools with under 5 percent of 8th graders scoring at the proficient level in math. The best performance in the PPS was at the Science and Technology Academy with 40.6 percent below proficient, which seems high but was significantly better than the state average of 69 percent.

Still, there can be little doubt that, notwithstanding the likelihood the tests may be difficult, many schools are performing very badly, both absolutely and relative to the average or better schools. To be sure, in order to average 69 percent below proficient statewide, many schools had to be well above that level in the 80 and 90 percent range.  This means huge numbers of students are being promoted year after year with little—and certainly an inadequate—grasp of mathematics.

Indeed, the state must address the problem head on. Reducing the difficulty of the tests could give a fairer reading of students’ grade level achievement. But in the schools that currently have extraordinarily high rates of poor test performance and where major reforms in instruction and test taking are not carried out, there will undoubtedly remain an unacceptably high percentage of students exhibiting seriously inadequate evidence of learning.

Conclusion

The practice of promoting children with an unacceptably poor grasp of the basic subjects on to higher grades each year simply condemns them to years of below-acceptable performance—and, eventually, a high school diploma that reflects little more than the years the students spent in school.

One thing is certain: Until the Governor and Legislature stand ready to take on teacher unions, entrenched state education department employees and school boards of districts with high percentages of inadequately prepared students and enact major reforms, the status quo of unsatisfactory results will continue and tens of thousands of students will graduate each year with serious deficits in literacy and numeracy. And the futures of many of these graduates will be diminished accordingly.

The Keystone Exams fiasco

Background: From the Pennsylvania Department of Education website: “In 2010, Pennsylvania passed a law that supported the creation of end-of-course assessments, known as ‘Keystone.’ These would serve two purposes: (1) establishing high school graduation requirements for students throughout the state; and (2) providing a way for the state and the federal government to hold high schools accountable for educating students. Students began taking the tests in 2012, with a plan to have Keystones become a graduation requirement in 2017.”

Early history of test experience

In the initial requirements for graduation a student had to achieve a score of proficient on the exams in three areas covering math, English and science. Test results for the end of course exams in Algebra, English and Biology were first posted for tests taken in in school year 2014-2015 for the graduating class of 2016. The results were far from good. On the Algebra test 35.5 percent were below proficient, 27 percent were below proficient in English and 41 percent were below proficient in Biology.

The large percentage of students statewide failing to show proficiency on the tests prompted the Legislature to enact Act 1 of 2016 that delayed the requirement of achieving scores of proficient on Keystone until the 2019 graduating class. Over the following six years test results for Algebra and English not only failed to improve but slightly worsened through 2019 (math 36.7 percent below proficient and English 28.5 percent below proficient), and following a COVID cancellation in 2020, fell again in 2021, especially in English with 50 percent below proficient. (Note that the number of students taking the English test statewide fell 91 percent from the 2019 count of 118,885).

Continuous legislative postponing of imposition of graduation requirement

True to form, the Legislature passed bills each year through 2020 further delaying by another year the use of the Keystone exams’ proficiency requirement for graduation. As of now the year of requiring the use of the Keystone results has been postponed until 2023 by Senate Bill 1216 passed in November 2020 (Act 136).   

However, to further complicate the issue, in 2018 the governor signed Senate Bill 1095 (Act 158 of 2018) into law that provides over 20 alternative accomplishments that can be used to meet graduation requirements for students who cannot reach proficiency levels on the end-of-course Keystone exams. 

A few examples of the alternatives provided in the act that can be used to meet graduation requirements when a student does not attain proficiency on the Keystone exams are shown here to illustrate the range of options available. 

1) successful completion of locally established, grade-based requirements for academic content areas associated with each Keystone exam on which the student did not achieve at least a proficient score and demonstration of one of the following: (i) attainment of an established score on an approved alternative assessment.

2) successful completion of a concurrent enrollment course in an academic content area associated with each Keystone exam on which the student did not achieve at least a proficient score.

3) successful completion of a pre-apprenticeship program.

4)  a letter guaranteeing full-time employment.

5) satisfactory compliance with the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s core courses for college-bound student athletes with a minimum GPA of 2.0 or the equivalent on an alternative grading scale.

Implications for Pittsburgh Public Schools

Thus, for the nearly 40 percent of students statewide who cannot achieve proficiency on the Keystone Algebra test or the 30 percent who have not adequately mastered English, there will be a large and extremely wide range of alternatives to be administered by the schools in conjunction, presumably, with state oversight.

However, as seen in Keystone test results from Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) high schools, the application of the huge array of enormously varied alternatives to meet graduation requirements will require a massive amount of time and expertise far beyond the schools’ current capabilities.   

In 2019 the PPS had nine high schools, not counting the Online Academy (which had only 16 test takers).  The nine schools had 1,283 11th -grade students take the Keystone Algebra exam. Of that number, 49 percent (629 students) failed to score at the proficient level. Five of the nine schools had percentages scoring less than proficient that were above the state average of 36.7 percent below proficient. These schools with below proficiency level scores ranged from 49.6 percent to 82 percent. The best performers were CAPA (25.8 percent) and the Science and Technology Academy (20.9 percent).  Two schools, Obama and Allderdice, had scores in the 30 percent range. 

This analysis looks only at the Algebra scores because English and Biology patterns are very similar. Moreover, while all test-takers in 2021 took the Algebra exam, a fairly large percentage of students taking the Keystone exams did not take the English test and many did not take the Biology test, so to compare the two years’ results only the Algebra scores are truly meaningful.

In 2021, 968 11th -grade students took the Keystone Algebra exam. Of the test takers, 52 percent (502) failed to achieve a proficient score—a three percentage point rise from 2019.  Statewide 37.6 percent of test-takers failed to score at the proficient level.  Only two PPS schools—CAPA at 24.2 percent and the Science and Technology Academy at 14.5 percent—had better results than the state average. Indeed, both these schools had better results than in 2019. The other schools ranged from 44.4 percent to 100 percent failing to reach the proficient level. Three schools had over 90 percent scoring under the proficiency requirement.

Clearly, with the underperformance numbers displayed by roughly half of 11th -graders in both years, the efforts and cost to come up with a program every year to get 600 plus students to meet alternative schemes to meet graduation requirements will be massive—indeed, it might not be doable.

And whatever the bill for the remediation efforts amounts to will be on top of the nearly $30,000 per student per year the PPS already spends.  To have half of 11th -graders falling below proficient on the Keystone Algebra exam when a relatively poor district like Windber in Somerset County that spends a mere $13,081 per student had only 11 percent below proficient in math is not just embarrassing, it is inexcusable.

State and other school comparisons

Note that statewide the number of 11th -graders failing to score at the proficient level in 2021 was 37.6 percent or 38,294 students. For the previous years the number of test takers below proficient on the Keystone Algebra exam has been over 40,000.  Little wonder the Legislature has kept delaying implementation of the graduation requirement.

In 2021, only three high schools in the state had zero students scoring below proficient on the Algebra exam­—Julia Masterman (Philadelphia City), Downingtown STEM Academy and the Wilkes-Barre STEM Academy, which had only 19 test takers.   In the Pittsburgh region, the two highest academically ranked high schools—Peters in Washington County and Pine-Richland in Allegheny County—had 6.1 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively, below proficient on the Algebra exam in 2021.

Conclusions and recommendations

The major point is that the concept of achieving proficiency on Keystone exams as a graduation requirement as currently constructed has been a very costly failure. Implementation has been continuously postponed while more and more complicated and expensive-to-administer alternatives have been enacted into law.

But other than demonstrating the inadequacy of learning by large numbers of students, the Keystone tests have accomplished nothing other than being a source of angst for students, parents and teachers and school administrators and a waste of the Legislature’s time and money. There can be little doubt that the performance on the Keystone exams will track very closely with scores on college entrance exams.  Why not use those instead? Set a minimum score to graduate.

Clearly, this is a highly politically sensitive and corrosive issue and, unfortunately, is unlikely to be corrected by drastic steps such as eliminating the test scores (or one of a myriad options for those who fail the tests) as a graduation requirement.  The convoluted process has made the Keystone exam requirement a mockery that only its progenitors can support in its current form.    

Indeed, its very existence points to the failure that high school education has become for nearly 40 percent of Pennsylvania high school students. Something drastic needs to be done and soon.  Continuation of the fiction that high school students are qualified for a diploma even when they perform very poorly on math, science or English tests undermines credibility and tells failing students they are educated when they are not and likely consigns them to menial jobs.

Disappointing PSSA results for 2018

Summary: Pennsylvania has its third through eighth graders take Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests annually. These tests are designed to assess academic achievement in three areas—math and language arts, as well as science, in fourth and eighth grades. Eleventh graders for the last few years have taken the Keystone exams in math, literature, and science rather than PSSA tests.  This Brief focuses on the PSSA scores.

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2018 scores for the state have been posted.  Student achievement is assigned to one of four levels: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. Of course, the desired level is proficient or advanced. Advanced recognizes the student’s achievement to be above, or well above, the level necessary to move up to the next grade.  A proficient rating means the student has a grade-level mastery of the subject adequate to move on to the next grade. Basic means the student has some understanding but not sufficient to move on without remedial help. Below basic means the student has little or no grasp of the subject matter taught in that grade.

Suffice to say, the 2018 results are not encouraging.  First of all, the percentage of students scoring advanced or proficient in math fell slightly from the 2017 level in grades three, four, six and eight. The percentage advanced or proficient edged a bit higher in fifth and seventh grades. Only in third grade did more than half of students score proficient or higher, 54.5 percent in 2017 and 54.1 percent in 2018. That means that for every other grade the combined percentage of basic or below basic is above 50 percent.

The worst of the findings in the PSSA results is the sharp decline in scores with each higher grade in both 2017 and 2018. In 2018, the third grade combined basic and below basic percentage was 45.9. By sixth grade that combined percentage climbed to 60.5 percent and by eighth grade reached 69 percent.

English language arts scores tend to run higher than the math scores but remain well below levels the state should find acceptable. About 40 percent of students in each grade from third to eighth scored in the combined basic and below basic categories. And while better than the near 60 percent scoring basic or below basic in math in all grades but the third, 40 percent falling behind in third through eighth grades is a huge problem, especially for the high percentages of eighth graders who will be entering high school unprepared for ninth grade in math and English language arts.

Moreover, with only 53 percent of eighth graders scoring proficient or higher in the science portion of the exam, the inadequacy of preparation for high school is even more pronounced.

A very interesting statistic is found in the Education Department’s PSSA results report.  750,302 third through eighth grade students were tested in 2018. Of that number 414,495 are classified as historically underperforming. That means they are either economically disadvantaged, English learners or have an individualized education plan. A student falling into more than one of those categories is counted just once.

What an amazing statistic—55.2 percent of elementary school test takers are classified as historically underperforming (HU). It is stunning to contemplate that well over half of Pennsylvania elementary students are in the HU classification. One would assume that the bulk of these children are in the HU grouping because of economics. But that begs the question of how poor does a child’s family have to be to qualify as disadvantaged. And given that school and transport, and in many cases breakfasts and lunches, are free, it must be that the category is trying to capture something else that is detrimental to learning.

And as it happens, the HU students as categorized by the Education Department do underperform the average of all students; indeed they bring down the all-student average.  The underperformance occurs in all three subjects tested—math, English and science.  For example, in math 47 percent of the HU students in third through eighth grades scored below basic while the all-student average was 31.9 percent. Likewise the HU students had a much lower percentage of advanced or proficient at 25.2 percent compared to 42 percent for the all-student average. Using the state’s data for the average and HU student scores for the proficient or higher rating of third through eighth students, the scoring percentage for the non-HU students can be calculated. In math, those students would have had a combined proficient and advanced percentage of 62.7

And while the numbers for science and English are better, overall the pattern of HU students falling well short of the average scores is maintained.

How is it that “historically underperforming” seems to have a great impact on learning but not sports performance?  In 2017 Aliquippa’s 11th graders (59 test takers) performed poorly on math with 71 percent basic or below basic and only 27 percent proficient. And remember that the math test is on Algebra I which can be taken just before the exam. In science these students had 83 percent score basic or below basic.  Note that of the 59 test takers, 58 are classified as historically underperforming. Yet despite the inability of the vast majority of students to show meaningful academic achievement, the football team just won its 17th WPIAL championship in its division and another state title. Does this mean poor children cannot learn math or science but they can master a complex and demanding sport? Priorities appear to be misplaced.

Indeed, are there no academic requirements to play sports?

Pennsylvania needs to get over its excuse-making for poor academic performance, especially considering the sums spent on remedial education and other special programs aimed at improving quality of education.

Some Reality in Education Funding Debates Would Be Helpful

Recently the Governor visited the Clairton School District’s elementary school to continue his push for a much greater level of education funding.  He took the time to chide the Legislature for not allocating enough money to help districts such as Clairton.  He is quoted as saying “I understand that you can’t throw money at any problem, but you can’t keep taking money out…and hope to get a good result.”  The Governor ought to be reminded that over the years, more and more money has been thrown at the problem with little or no improvement in academic achievement.  Our Policy Briefs over the past few years have demonstrated this conclusion many times.

 

But one more demonstration is called for in view of the fact that the Governor is making the rounds of schools to make his case for more funding.  And, since he was in Clairton to make his pitch, we will start there.  Pennsylvania Department of Education Statistics (DoE) data for the 2004-2005 school year put Clairton City School District total revenue at $12.82 million.  Breaking that down by source, the District collected $3.49 million locally (27 percent), $8.04 million from the state (63 percent) and the remaining amount from Federal sources $1.26 million (about ten percent).

 

Nearly a decade later,  revenue data for the 2013-2014 school year (the latest available from the DoE), place total revenues at $14.19 million, an increase of nearly eleven percent from 2004-2005.  Again, breaking out the sources of the money shows that the local contribution was $3.88 million (27 percent), the state pitched in $9.63 million (68 percent) while the Fed’s allocation fell to $674,771 (4.75 percent).  The state’s allocation increased by nearly twenty percent, local funding increased over eleven percent, while Federal funding fell by nearly half.  Clearly the money from the state and local taxpayers has been increasing, not falling, over time.

 

The following table shows how Clairton stacks up with other Pennsylvania districts that have similar enrollment levels for the period studied:  Farrell, Wilkinsburg, and Windber.

 

District Total Revenues (000s) State Revenues (000s)
2004-05 2013-14 % Change 2004-05 2013-14 % Change
Clairton City SD $12,821 $14,192 10.69 $8,038 $9,635 19.87
Farrell Area SD $13,700 $15,623 14.04 $8,213 $10,188 24.05
Wilkinsburg SD $27,967 $29,652 6.02 $10,415 $11,662 11.97
Windber Area SD $13,240 $15,269 15.32 $9,732 $11,405 17.19

 

 

The table above shows that none of the districts experienced a decline in revenue over the decade, either from the state or in total.  However, it does show that the percent increases in state revenue are much larger than boosts in overall revenue. Funding from Federal sources was cut for all but one of the districts (Windber rose 26.75 percent).  Conversely, local funding rose for these four districts.  Contrary to the Governor’s statement above, money has not been taken out of these districts at either the total, state, or local level.

 

Of course changes in the amounts of revenue are only part of the story. It is also important to look at per pupil numbers. Clairton’s enrollment in 2004-2005, (measured by average daily membership (ADM)) stood at 984.  However, by the 2013-14 school year it had fallen by about seven percent to 917.  Farrell’s enrollment fell 21.4 percent to 836; Wilkinsburg was off 29.3 percent to 1,265 and Windber declined by 15.37 percent to 1,210. As we noted in an earlier Policy Brief (Volume 15, Number55), the hold harmless provision prevents state basic education funding from falling even if enrollment does drop.

 

These changes in ADM affect the per pupil revenue amounts received by each district.  For the 2013-2014 academic year, Clairton’s total revenue per ADM was $15,478, a near 19 percent jump over the 2004-2005 levels.  This per pupil amount exceeds Windber ($12,621, up 36 percent) but is well below Wilkinsburg ($23,437, up nearly 50 percent), and Farrell ($18,695, up 45 percent).  Again with state revenues continuing to increase, along with local allocations, combined with declines in enrollment kept per pupil revenues climbing.

 

But, what about the amount of money spent on education?  The Governor and many educrats rarely, if ever, bring up the subject of district spending.  The following table looks at the total spending of the four districts in our sample.

 

District Total Expenditures (000s) Total Expenditures per ADM
2004-05 2013-14 % Change 2004-05 2013-14 % Change
Clairton City SD $13,317 $14,176 6.45 $13,540 $15,460 14.18
Farrell Area SD $13,378 $15,463 15.59 $12,570 $18,503 47.20
Wilkinsburg SD $26,696 $29,599 10.87 $14.930 $23,395 56.70
Windber Area SD $13,555 $15,502 14.36 $9,493 $12,814 34.98

 

The table above shows that each district in this small sample had jumps in the amount of total expenditures over the ten year period.  Clairton had the smallest rise while the largest went to Farrell.  More importantly, when compared to the increases to total revenues, only Clairton and Windber had the growth to revenues outpace those of total expenditures.

 

Against the backdrop of enrollment, we get a better idea of how much is being spent on a per-pupil basis.  As mentioned above, the ADM for these four districts in this sample fell, while for every district total expenditures climbed over the last ten years.  Clairton’s total expenditures per pupil came in at $15,460 (a little below the per-pupil revenues). Clairton total spending per student was about $400 above the state average. The District also spends about $1,600 more per pupil than the state average spending on instruction.

 

At $12,814 in per pupil expenditures, Windber had the lowest cost of educating its students in the sample. The Windber number is well below Clairton ($15,460), Farrell ($18,500) and Wilkinsburg ($23,395).

 

Clearly, the increase in education spending and revenues would not be as much of an issue if academic performance was stellar.  As we have said time and again, throwing money at the problem does not guarantee good results.

 

The following table illustrates the performance of 11th grade students on the Keystone Exams and the attendance rate of the highs schools in each district.

 

11th Grade Keystone Exams (2013-2014) % Scoring Advanced or Proficient in… Attendance (%)
District Math Reading
Clairton City HS 35.00 43.00 88.64
Farrell Area HS/UMS 18.00 32.00 93.95
Wilkinsburg HS 5.00 6.00 82.17
Windber Area HS 76.00 81.00 94.17

 

The percent of students scoring advanced or proficient in math is poor in three of the districts but truly abysmal in Wilkinsburg where spending per student is the highest. Only Windber posted a respectable score and it has the lowest expenditures per pupil. The results are similar with the reading portion of the exam.  Windber is the outlier in this sample.  They have a fairly high level of academic achievement yet, on a per-student basis, they spend far less than Clairton, Farrell and Wilkinsburg.

 

The final indicator taken into consideration is the attendance rate for the respective high schools.  It is no surprise that the district with the worst test scores also had the poorest attendance 82 percent —Wilkinsburg.  We documented the relationship between attendance and academic performance in an earlier Policy Brief (Volume 15, Number 30).

 

Clairton had an attendance rate below 90 percent while Windber’s was over 94 percent.  The seeming outlier is Farrell.  However, Farrell’s attendance rate also includes that of their upper middle school (UMS) which includes 7th and 8th graders.  Middle school grades typically have better attendance rates than the high schools and it is very possible the overall rate is being lifted by these middle school grades.

 

In short, the Governor’s call for huge increases in state education funding money is ill-conceived and specious. Data show that poorly performing districts receive and spend plenty of money, most of which comes from state taxpayers.  Yet academic results are frequently simply abominable especially in districts getting per-pupil state funding in excess of the state average. There are several additional PA districts besides those discussed here—such as Pittsburgh—that also spend large sums for mediocre results.

 

Rather than blithely repeating claims that education spending is inadequate, the Governor should be concerned about how so much state money can be spent and yet produce so little in the way of academic achievement. Maybe he could even ask his so-called experts if they have an answer to that question.  Obviously, if money were the answer, the problem would have been solved long ago. It would be instructive to spend some time studying districts such as Windber to see what they are doing to achieve good results with well below state average spending. As a start, the study might focus some attention on attendance rates that are so problematic at many of the failing schools.

Graduation Exams: Closing the Barn Door?

There is widespread and understandable concern about the high percentage of Pennsylvania’s high school graduates who are deficient in reading, writing, quantitative and reasoning skills. Anecdotal survey results show that only 7 percent of businesses polled are very confident that state graduates have the skills to enter the workplace. Little wonder the state education establishment and business leaders support a graduation exam that must be passed before a regular diploma can be awarded.

While the idea of people showing they have mastered skills sufficient to earn a diploma sounds quite reasonable, in the case of public, compulsory education with social promotion the norm, it is just a pipe dream. It is simply not reasonable to expect that a student who has been pushed on to the next grade regardless of academic achievement for eleven and a half years is going to be able to master twelfth grade level math and reading skills in time to take a test. When they fail the test and fail the re-test, is the school district going to deny them a diploma? Not likely. Lawsuits from the ACLU or other organizations would be on their doorsteps almost instantly.

The problem must be dealt with much earlier. For example, tests should be given at the end of each school year to measure progress. No one would be passed along to higher grades if they fail the tests. Remedial efforts over the summer or in after school programs at an early age would be far more beneficial.

Moreover, tests should not be limited to reading and math. Students should have to know something and be tested on it as well. By high school they should know basic science, some history and geography. By eleventh grade they should know U.S. history, civics, some literature, and economics. Producing students who can do math and read but are virtual ignoramuses is not true education.

If the state wants to get serious about improving education it must be willing to tackle the difficult issues head on. Any school district or school with more than 25 percent of students failing to show proficiency on the year-end tests for two years running would be taken over by the state. Parents of the students would be given the choice of staying in the state managed school or given a voucher for 75 percent of the per pupil spending in that school to be used at the non-public school of their choice.

In state managed schools, no teacher or administrator would be retained after the current contract was complete. All would have to reapply for jobs and be hired on the basis of competency and proven performance. The threat of losing jobs might act as an inducement to do a better job during the remaining years on the contract. Of course, this is a pipe dream as well. The PSEA and other unions and their allies in the Legislature will never allow meaningful reform.

Graduation exams are just the latest diversion to make the public think something is actually being done that will improve Pennsylvania’s education performance.