DePasquale: Scrap Keystone exams for high school kids and replace them with SATs

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale (L) listens as Democratic Sen. Andrew Dinniman of Chester County (R) speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol on 7/10/19. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Pennsylvania taxpayers are paying a bundle, and not getting much return on investment, for the battery of standardized tests for high school students that eat into instructional time and haven’t been federally mandated for years, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Wednesday.

Since 2015, and running until 2021, the state will pay nearly $100 million to a Minnesota-based company to administer and score the Keystone Exams, which are taken annually by high school students across Pennsylvania, DePasquale said during a Capitol news conference.

Instead, Pennsylvania could join the ranks of 12 other states that have scrapped state-specific exams since the demise of the federal No Child Left Behind law, and instead allow students to take the PSAT or SAT. Doing so would both save money and allow the state to meet a requirement under federal law that all high school students take some kind of standardized test.

DePasquale, joined by Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, also said switching to the SAT, PSAT or ACT examinations would open the door to a college education for more students — particularly lower-income students who have trouble covering the out-of-pocket cost of the now-optional college entrance exam.

“Why not use the cheaper alternative that can help get kids into college,” said DePasquale, who undertook the audit at the request of Dinniman, who’s the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee.

 

In addition to a shift to the SAT or ACT, DePasquale’s audit also recommends that:

  • The General Assembly ask the U.S. Department of Education to “provide funding for all required standardized tests, including the secondary-level test.”
  • The state Department of Education identify “every dollar that the [test contractor] claims to be owed in federal and state funds through its purchase orders” before it gets paid.
  • All state government contracts, particularly big ones like the testing contract, “should be easily accessible through channels established in state law.” And the state Education Department should “provide documents and information” on the test vendor’s contract to anyone who asks for them.
  • The state Education Department should “log and make public the curriculum that every school district uses” to make sure that they’re not “actively [disadvantaged],” when it comes to taking such standardized tests as the Keystone Exam.

Dinniman said Wednesday that he wants to take a deeper dive on standardized testing across a student’s public school career. Right now, students take the PSSA exams in the primary grades and the Keystones in high school.

Since 2008, and running until 2021, the state will spend $741 million to administer the two exams, Dinniman said, adding that he might ask for oversight hearings on the examinations from either the Senate Education Committee or the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

“It’s a huge state contract that serves no purpose,” Dinniman said Wednesday of the state’s agreement with Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp. ” … Why have we kept them for so long? Is it simple inertia?”

Dinniman faulted the Pennsylvania Department of Education Wednesday, criticizing the agency for what he said was a lack of “transparency” regarding the financial records on its testing contracts. DePasquale said that his office had to “make repeated requests just to get basic information” about the tax money spent on the tests.

“We waited months for information that they promised to share,” he said in a statement. “But it was only yesterday [Tuesday] that the agency started answering our remaining questions.”

In a statement, Matthew Stem, a Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, accused DePasquale of “[ignoring] significant reforms Pennsylvania made to standardized testing in recent years.

“In addition to shortening the PSSA and administering it later in the school year to better serve students, the Wolf Administration has reduced costs associated with standardized testing by 30%, including the cost of the Keystone Exams,” the statement reads.

The Education Department says it’s always “been receptive to considering a high school exam other than the Keystone Exams, provided the process is educationally sound, fiscally responsible, compliant with federal law, and allows Pennsylvania educators to continue to apply their professional judgment,” Stem added.

And, Stern noted, “no state has fully met the federal requirements to use the ACT or SAT for federal testing purposes. Currently, the Keystone Exams are the only assessment aligned to Pennsylvania’s state-level standards and fully federally approved to use in the commonwealth.”

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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