On Aug. 13 the state Board of Education approved a system of testing that will determine whether a student is eligible to graduate from high school. Before the proposal had even been approved, the Education Committee of the Pennsylvania State Conference of NAACP Branches released a resolution against the Keystone tests.
“The state conference of the NAACP has unanimously voted its opposition,” said Joan Duvall-Flynn, chair of the education committee. “It systematically sorts Pennsylvania’s young people.”
Beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, students would be required to take tests in math, English, science and social studies. The scores on these tests would equal one-third of their final grade in each subject.
She said the Keystone tests would leave many students without a high school diploma. She also said dropout and incarceration rates have increased in the 22 states where these types of tests have been instituted.
“Without a diploma they are immobilized. People who have no high school diploma cannot sustain their lives. They will depend on those people in Pennsylvania who are working and paying taxes to sustain their lives,” Duvall-Flynn said. “As human beings these young people deserve the opportunity to grow and mature and see the world differently then they do at 17 or 18, but if they have no high school diploma they have no access.”
By the 2016-2017 school year, students would have to take exams in English literature, algebra I, biology, English composition, algebra II, geometry, U.S. history, chemistry, civics and world history. The exams would be taken after the students have learned the subject matter instead of all at once and students would have to pass six of the 10 tests.
“The entire notion of a number at which a person is proficient and the number at which a person is basic, the difference is one number,” Duvall-Flynn said. “Setting a cutoff score is arbitrary. These are arbitrary decisions that will be used to control young people’s lives. “
The Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP is joining the state in fighting the Keystone tests. President M. Gayle Moss said the exams will have a disproportionate effect on children of poverty and of color.
“We’re not against exams as long as the playing field is level. Our students have to have everything the other students have in the classroom. If they’re taught and given all the opportunities they’re prepared and we don’t think they’re prepared in our community,” Moss said. “We’re hoping we can get it stopped until all of these things are put in place.”
Moss and Marilyn Barnett, Ph.D., who chairs the local branch’s education committee, said minorities and children living in poverty have lower expectations placed on them. They said this, coupled with unequal administration, teachers and materials in school, leads the students to perform poorly.
“When you have different expectations for students and then you want to put them all in the same testing, that’s unequal treatment, Barnett said. “Teach the children equally. Make sure all students are engaged in serious curriculum. We want to make sure the expectations are the same for poor Hispanic and Black children. If you don’t believe they can learn then you will have lower expectations.”
Although Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt admitted he might be in the minority, he said he is in favor of the Keystone tests.
“I understand people’s fears, but I think it is absurd to think that a state should not have a clear set of expectations of what a high school diploma should mean,” Roosevelt said.
When Roosevelt was a Massachusetts state representative he helped institute graduation tests through the Education Reform Act of 1993. He said this has contributed to the increased ranking of the state to third in education for the 2006-2007 school year whereas Pennsylvania was 17th, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council.
In reference to concerns regarding an increase in dropout rates, Massachusetts boasted an 85 percent graduation rate overall in 2008, but this falls to 60 percent when looking at Boston individually. Pittsburgh, similar in race and class composition to Boston, is behind with a graduation rate of approximately 65 percent.
Instead of focusing efforts on fighting the exams, Roosevelt said people should be working to make sure the students are better prepared. However, he said he receives little participation when trying to provide additional help for students through programs such as summer school.
“If it’s true more kids of color won’t pass these tests, that is not the problem itself; it sheds light on the problem,” Roosevelt said. “The graduation test only focuses on that problem.”
Representatives from the teachers unions in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia did not return calls, to voice their views on the test.