WEST CHESTER (January 16) – State Senator Andy Dinniman said the lack of resources in Pennsylvania’s financially distressed public schools is so stark that the use of the Keystone Exams as graduate requirements must be stopped before they exacerbate an already dire situation.
“It’s clear to me that there are two systems of public education in Pennsylvania: separate and unequal,” said Dinniman, who serves as minority chair of the Senate Education Committee. “Until we resolve that discrepancy, how can we, in good conscience, stamp ‘failure’ on the backs of kids who lack the teachers, resources and classes to pass such standardized tests? To continue down this path without addressing such basic issues is beyond the pale. It’s downright shameful.”
Dinniman announced that he will introduce legislation to end passage of the Keystone Exams as high school graduation requirements because they will only widen the growing gap between financially distressed and more affluent high schools.
Beginning with the class of 2017 (current sophomores), high school students will have to pass Keystone Exams in three subject areas (Algebra I, Biology and Language Arts) in order to earn a diploma.
He said that an analysis conducted by his staff reveals the vast disparity between the academic services, technology and basic resources available to students in inner city school districts versus those in their affluent suburban counterparts.
The comparison, based on district information and conversations with high school teachers, revealed that students at Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School have access to almost none of the latest academic and technological resources afforded to those at West Chester B. Reed Henderson High.
For example, Overbrook students are still using a biology textbook from 11 years ago – one that does not cover the curriculum tested by the Keystones. Nor do students have hands-on labs, which are considered an essential component of Biology education.
To make matters worse, this year Overbrook has no Biology teacher. Students are not even taking the standard Pennsylvania Biology curriculum. Instead, they take a course called Environmental Science and even that is often taught by other teachers or substitutes who are not necessarily certified in it.
Overbrook students do not have access to computers in the classroom and those that are available are either outdated or broken. Even basic supplies like projector bulbs, graph paper, pencils, hand soap and paper towels are often lacking.
Meanwhile, about 20 miles away, students at Henderson this year will receive their own laptops for school and home use. Classes there are taught the standard Pennsylvania biology curriculum by instructors who are certified in their fields and with the latest textbooks aligned with the Keystones.
In addition, the West Chester Area School District has hired biology specialists to teach at each of its three high schools. These specialists will prepare Henderson students for the Keystone Exam in Biology and provide remediation for those who do not pass it the first time. And Henderson students also participate in labs weekly and can always use their laptops to access online resources or take practice tests.
“The West Chester Area School District is doing an excellent job of preparing its students at Henderson and its other two high schools for the Keystones and for the future. I want every high school in Pennsylvania to be like Henderson, which was ranked 295th in the nation by Newsweek last year,” Dinniman said. “However, until we make up that gap, it is unconscionable to give these kids the same tests and act like there is an equal playing field. We are not only failing students at Overbrook and similar high schools. We are setting them up for failure!”
Dinniman said the comparison provided a “vivid example” of what is occurring at two high schools in the Philadelphia region – one that illustrates the need to end the Keystones’ role as the sole determinant of a student’s graduation.
“Overbrook’s graduation rate for 2013-14 was 53.4 percent. Imagine how far it will drop when it depends on students passing exams they are not even remotely prepared for? Imagine how those students lives will be impacted by dropping out or failing out?” he said. “I, along with my colleagues in the legislature, share both a moral responsibility and a Constitutional duty ‘to provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education. Until we can meet that responsibility, these exams should be put on the back burner.”
Dinniman is also planning to schedule conversations with students and teachers from both high schools and will invite interested members of the Senate Education Committee so they can directly hear why the Keystones Exams should not be the deciding factor in a student’s graduation.