Former Senator says, Pennsylvania kids "figured it out" by 8th grade.

It is almost a year since I attended a PA Senate hearing last August about the Keystone graduation exams. In case you don't know, all Pennsylvania public school students who will graduate in 2017 and later, need to pass exams in Algebra 1, Biology, and Literature in order to graduate. No matter if they attend an outstanding school district, have straight A's, have learning differences, text anxiety, or any other legitimate issues.

 Much was said, but one thing retired Senator, Jeff Piccola said in his testimony has stuck with me. After a brief history of the way our politicians developed more school accountability, he testified about why the Keystones and their higher stakes were necessary.

Forgive any minor errors in the transcript I typed from his testimony here. (A special thank you to my student, Eli Werbach, for finding a working link after someone had the testimony removed from the original link.)

"It is important to note that the Keystones are the first instance that the students are held accountable for their academic achievement since Pennsylvania began developing these standards in the 1990's. Heretofore,  the PSSA's could be blown off by the individual students because it didn't count anything for them. And I recall visiting schools in various school districts and elementary school students can be cajoled, and bribed, and encourgaed to do well on the PSSA's, but by the time they get to 8th grade they've figured out they have no stake in the exam..." (Emphasis mine.)

It is with much respect that I ask the former Senator and others on these committees how many 8th grade students they know. I have three children and two have recently been in 8th grade. In addition, I have taught well over a thousand kids. I know all of the kids my children are friends with and the hundreds I met while substitute teaching as a new teacher. The kids are smart. If they are onto the fact that the tests aren't valuable to their learning experience, there is no buy-in. This happens because the children are thinking critically. Eighth graders respond well to authentic and intellectually interesting and challenging performance assessments and projects. If you want them to work harder this won't do it; threatening them with their graduation will only increase anxiety and resentment. They feel it is unfair, because it is unreasonable. They study hard and get good grades. Yet due to these exams, they see the sham in the high stakes scam.

Former Senator Piccola continues, "...Therefore we do need some kind of exam that students know they are accountable for their grade. Heretofore, school administrators and teachers were accountable for an exam that students may or may not take seriously. With proficiency requirements for graduation, the students will certainly view the tests as important. That is only fair to the students. That is something we need in our system to be fair to teachers and administrators."

Sigh. Even best selling author, Daniel Pink, knows carrots and sticks don't motivate. It is my guess that if our politicians actually listened to the testimony given by parents and real education experts, such as the incredible Dr. William S. Keilbaugh, Superintendent of Haverford Township School District, they would have a better understanding of child and adolescent psychology, and the actual financial and human costs of these exams.

And in defense of 8th graders, let me assure you that beneath their sometimes broody facade, their sometimes goofy antics, and their sometimes edgy adolescent attitudes, they are really exceptional human beings. We often react viscerally to the stories about elementary school students being forced to participate in developmentally inappropriate test prep and testing, but it is the same with our teenagers. All children deserve to have a chance to love learning, to learn at a pace that is individualized, to have teachers differentiate instruction in the way only human beings can (not computer programs), and to develop confidence in themselves as intellectuals. We are really cheating them out of a lot if they graduate and never want to learn again.

We shouldn't be making adolescence harder than it already is.

So as the one year anniversary of this hearing arrives, I thank all of the politicians who have reflected on true research, psychology, and best practices. I thank the politicians who have listened and heard the stories of parents and students. I thank them for changing their minds, which is the true sign of intellect and knowledge. Pennsylvania parents urge you to remove the Keystone exams as a graduation requirement.


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