Chances are, if you are a Pennsylvania high school student and older than a freshman, you have taken the Keystone Exams in at least one subject. If you are in tenth grade, you’ll be expected to take them again in Spring 2015 for Literature and Biology. And if you are a high school student in the Philadelphia School District, only about 45% of you would score proficient or above on the biology section.
How do you like those odds?
Any student who has received a public education has been subject to at standardized testing from as early as the first grade. Whether online or on paper, the results are documented and the number follows the student from elementary school and through high school. This number often determines which classes students are placed in. But this score is certainly not representative of an entire year of teaching or learning.
Often the material on the test is not the material covered in class. So, as many of you know, students scheduled to take the tests are forced to spend the few weeks leading up to the test cramming to quickly memorize vocabulary and formulas, most of which we just as quickly forget.
SLA is an unusual case because of our different approach to teaching and learning. Instead of the usual mid-terms, finals and unit-end tests distributed in between, we create projects which require a more in depth analysis of what we have learned. Instead of simply memorizing the information, we internalize it. We demonstrate what we have learned through presentations, posters, children’s books, videos, speeches, monologues, and plays. The list goes on.
But come May 16, like every student in Philadelphia, we will take the Keystone Exams. This year, however, we have become aware of another option – and that is opting out.
The controversy surrounding opting out of Keystones is that many parents and students fear that it will give students a disadvantage, by harming their chances of graduating. Schools share a similar concern, since if five percent or more of students do not take the tests, then the scores are invalidated as a measure of that school’s progress. With the already sensitive state of our education and funding, a bad score could lessen our chances of prospective support and funding, though we are not currently sure if, in place of actual scores, the district will put in a “no data” or a “0.” No input may or may not hurt the school’s overall School Performance Profile number, which is determined by the district.
While opting out is not new the process of opting out presents difficulties. The main point of concern is convincing parents to allow their children to opt out of taking the test. From there, parents have to submit a letter, citing their reasoning as “religious” or “health related.” Then the principal may require them to review the exam in person.
However, we not entirely exempt from all forms of assessment. If we choose to opt out, we are required to complete a project for which we receive a grade of either “pass” or “fail.” The “project” is essentially designed to discourage you from choosing that option, because it is a difficult and very long online assessment–not anything like the projects
So, what can students do in the face of all this?
I’m a member of SLA’s chapter of the Philly Student Union and we’re preparing a campaign called “More Than a Test” to encourage high school students to opt out of the Keystone Exams. The campaign will include Vines, where students briefly summarize a project they have done, followed by the phrase “This wasn’t on the Keystones.” We’ll also be challenging local politicians to take the test, to further emphasize our message that we forget a major portion of the information on the test and further, that it will not be of use to us when we are adults. Our website will launch in a few weeks.
Gentrification is also something we hope to avoid by opting out. Economically disadvantaged students who attend schools in poor neighborhoods do poorly on Keystone exams. Poor test scores may sometimes be used as an argument for closing schools. The school district sells the buildings to Temple, Drexel, Penn or turns them into condominiums. Because these buildings cost more to live in, the real estate value of that area increases forcing lower income families to move out and gentrification takes hold.
Tests cannot truly measure our full capacity to learn, but the repercussions of an Opt-Out Campaign may cause harm to the very ideology we are trying to maintain at SLA. We encourage you to examine the risks and benefits of choosing to opt out so that come May 16, you have made your decision, one that you believe is truly in your best interests.
Image courtesy of lehighvalleylive.com