Pennsylvania continues to wrestle with an essential question for the future of its people and its economy: What should a high school diploma mean, and what should it take to earn one?
In the past decade, the state has moved towards prioritizing standardized testing as a graduation requirement.
But the pendulum now seems to be swinging in the opposite direction.
A Quick History Lesson
In the mid 2000s, Democratic Governor Ed Rendell's administration pushed to create new standardized tests that students would need to pass in order to graduate high school.
By 2010, the measure became law, and it was decided that there would be 10 end-of-subject "Keystone" exams.
Only three of these were developed — algebra, literature and biology.
Students began taking the tests in 2012, and performance was supposed to affect graduation for the class of 2017.
But then, many more students than expected weren't passing the exams.
Annual pass rates have been below 60 percent for more than half of all district and charter schools, with lower pass rates for low-income students and students of color.
The state offered no additional resources to help students remediate or complete alternate project-based assessments — a nightmare for districts and parents.
Many districts spent millions attempting to get students on track. Cash-strapped districts, often tasked with serving the greatest needs, braced for the worst. Students across the state missed other learning opportunities to focus on the tests.
This past January, as the political fallout grew, lawmakers forged a band-aid solution, pushing the effective date back two years.
"I still support the concept, I just think in rolling out the implementation of this graduation requirement we ran into a lot of problems," said State Senator Lloyd Smucker, a Lancaster County Republican who chairs the education committee, speaking in January.
The bill delaying the requirement had unanimous bipartisan support, a major rarity.
And it asked the state Department of Education — which is under the purview of Governor Tom Wolf — to sketch out some possible alternatives.
New 'Menu Of Options'
That report came out this month.
"What we had before was overly narrow, and so we're looking to create additional options," said Matthew Stem, a deputy director in the Department of Education.
The report outlines four recommendations that offer students more ways to prove their readiness for college and career.
Achieve an identified "composite" score based on performance on the three tests. (So, for instance, high performance on the literature exam could compensate for under-performance on the biology test.)
Achieve equivalent scores in standards-based subject matter on one of the alternate assessments approved by the state. (These could include the SAT and ACT, as well as Advanced Placement exams or International Baccalaureate program tests).
Demonstrate competency in standards-based subject matter through course work, plus passing career technical education tests such as the NOCTI or the NIMS.
Demonstrate competency in standards-based subject matter through course work, plus evidence that shows readiness for post-secondary success.
The department offers a few examples of evidence that could indicate that readiness, including performance on military entrance test, guaranteed full-time employment, and completion of an internship related to career goals.
Stem says the recommendations were developed in concert with stakeholders, including those in the business community.
"They expect students to demonstrate persistence, and the ability to collaborate in teams, and the ability to think critically," said Stem. "And those are skills beyond just passing Keystone Exams."
Jim Buckheit, the head of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, agrees wholeheartedly with the state's recommendations.
He says this follows a general trend. Four years ago, 25 states had standardized test graduation requirements on the books. Now it's down to 15.
"State policy makers and educators across the country are recognizing that standardized tests are not the sole or not the appropriate way to measure student achievement."
California, for instance, recently ditched its exit exam requirements, and retroactively gave diplomas to those who completed coursework, but had failed the exams in the preceding years.
Buckheit was executive director of the State Board of Education when the original regulations were put into effect, which he says were modeled after Maryland, which has since also scaled back its policy.
"Their policy hadn't been in place long enough that we could see the negative fallout of it," said Buckheit.
The state's largest teacher's union, The Pennsylvania State Education Association, also applauded the recommendations.
"High school exit exams are not the sole valid measure of students' mastery of subject matter nor a reliable indicator of post-secondary success," said spokesman Wythe Keever.
Not all parties share the enthusiasm for the department's findings.
"What's happened is, in an under-resourced world, when we're asking students to do more and teachers to do more in an environment in the past few years where there was less, this became politically very difficult. And I do fear that what we're doing is backing away," said Jonathan Cetel, head of PennCAN, a reform-minded group that advocates for school accountability.
"If you say that a student can fail the Keystone — which means they are not meeting the standards that the state has outlined — and then still be able to get a diploma through this squishy, ambiguous set of evidence that they have to provide," he said. "I think you dilute the standards."
New Jersey recently strengthened its high school graduation expectations. Earlier this month, lawmakers approved a measure requiring the class of 2021 to pass the Common Core aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test.
PennCAN's viewpoint was once championed by a diverse set of stakeholders, including Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, which declined to comment on the department's recommendations.
Stem defended the rigor of the department's recommendations, and noted that existing regulations include a loophole allowing superintendents to exempt 10 percent of their students from graduation requirements — a practice the new report disavows.
"We believe that we are raising the bar by saying that every Pennsylvania student has to be able to demonstrate college and career readiness," said Stem.
The report is now in the hands of state lawmakers.
If they hew closely to the department's suggestions, they'll need to consider that students will have less incentive to perform well on standardized tests, while their scores will still be used to gauge the quality of schools and teachers.
That, though, could change soon, too.
The Wolf administration wants to revamp the state's school and teacher quality metrics, also with less emphasis on standardized tests.