Discussion at Monday night's Lower Merion school board meeting centered on a new state-mandated exam and its implications for district students.
Beginning with the class of 2017, Lower Merion School District students must pass the Keystone Exam, an end of course proficiency assessment, in Algebra 1, Literature and Biology in order to graduate from the district, according to Wagner Marseille, LMSD Director of Secondary Education.
All students currently enrolled in 11th grade, as well as other students enrolled in a Keystone-related class, will also be required to take the exams this year.
Parents were notified about the Keystone Exams via letter, a copy of which is available on the district website.
“These new requirements are a major shift from current requirements,” Marseille told the LMSD Board of School Directors on Monday night. “It’s asking us to think very differently about the standards we use, the ways in which we instruct, and the rigor that is involved, in many of these new updates.”
The Keystone Exams measure the Common Core State Standards, adopted by Pennsylvania in 2011, and focus on higher level thinking, rather than rote memorization and recall, Marseille said. A mix of multiple choice and open-ended questions, the exams serve as an accountability system to improve high schools statewide, in a state where 40 percent of graduates who receive their diploma have not received a score of “Proficient” or above on their 11th grade PSSA.
For the 2012-13 school year, all 11th grade students will take Algebra I, Literature and Biology Keystone exams. Juniors' exams—which they will take in place of the PSSAs—will be used to determine student proficiency and determine if the district is making adequate yearly progress (AYP), but passing the tests will not be a graduation requirement.
Non-junior students who are enrolled in a Keystone-related course will also take the relevant exams, and their scores will be banked until 11th grade to determine AYP.
For the class of 2017—this year's eighth graders—and beyond, passing scores on the Keystone Exams will be required for graduation. The exams will be administered at the end of their Algebra I, Literature and Biology courses—typically, between 7th and 9th grade. If they pass, the graduation requirement is checked off. If they do not score at least proficient on an exam, students will be required to retake it.
If a student fails a Keystone Exam three times, he or she will be given an alternative project-based assessment as determined by the state, said Arthur Mitchell, LMSD STEM supervisor.
Based on the timing of the exams, 11th grade students may be taking an exam this year on material they learned in 7th grade, depending on when they took Algebra I. Teachers for related courses will review the relevant material, Mitchell said, and some classes, such as Algebra II, naturally include review.
What follows are a few questions or concerns about the exams raised by board members and members of the public, and school officials’ responses.
How long are the tests? Tests are untimed, and so it's different for each grade level and student, Mitchell said, but about 1.5 to 3 hours per exam.
Does this mean LMSD will be teaching to the test? Not really. “We are not turning into a test preparation district,” Mitchell said. The standards, another school official noted, are the “floor” rather than the “ceiling”—the standards are not the be-all, end-all in LMSD’s curriculum by any means; they’re just a measuring stick to see if the district is accomplishing what it sets out to do.
What about accomodations for students who need extra help? Students who may need extra help in passing the exams will be identified by their teachers. Individual and group review sessions for students who need extra help will be conducted, as necessary, during study halls—not during other class periods. Additionally, review materials will be posted online.
What about accommodations for special-education students? Any accomodations for special education students must be detailed in their IEP.
Can parents look at the tests? Yes. Once the tests are received by the district, parents can set up a meeting to look at the exams, so long as they don't take a test home with them or take notes about the test.
When will the tests take place? Exams will be administered during a winter testing window (Dec. 3-Jan. 25) and a spring window (May 13-24).
Depending on funding and legislation, Keystone exams could be added in the future for subjects like writing and government, according to district representatives.