The Keystone Exams have arrived, and most of the intelligence about them indicates they are substantially more difficult than the former Pennsylvania System of Student Assessment (PSSA) tests that have been the state's answer to No Child Left Behind for the past several years.
Why the change?
Perhaps it was simply to try something different, since the PSSAs were roundly criticized as ineffective when it came to measuring the performance of a school or school district in general education. While the PSSAs looked for adequate yearly progress (AYP) in the general areas of reading, math and writing, the Keystones are course-specific, and when they are fully implemented will carry a much heavier consequence for students. By the end of this decade a student will have to pass three times in order to graduate from high school.
Early indications obtained by practice exams are that more than half of the students who took them failed.
What's happening is much the same as a vehicle that downshifts for more power. If things work properly, initially the engine works harder to gain speed, ultimately returning to the higher gear when the speed is attained.
Pennsylvania's education system is attempting to shift gears, hoping to attain a better result in the long-run.
And, yet, whether they are harder or easier, the Keystone Exams will suffer the same fate as the PSSAs if they are taken as the be-all and end-all of primary and secondary education.
After many years of PSSAs and the holy grail of AYP, it has become clear that some schools make it and some don't. Some find success one year, only to fall behind the next. There are myriad reasons, not the least of which is the fact that children are not all the same, nor should they be. Some are naturally adept at mathematical reasoning, while others are better at expressing and understanding abstract ideas through the liberal arts.
Will the Keystone Exams adjust to take the variances in individual thought into consideration or simply offer up an arbitrary bench mark that is simply at a different elevation than the one previous?
And, since the new exams are course-specific will they foster to an even greater degree the incentive of teachers and educational systems to simply "teach for the test," while giving less attention to broader educational opportunities?
Only time will tell.