Grab a No. 2 pencil and underline this: the Keystones are unfair

While the legislature fiddles, teachers and students suffer

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UTMikeColLogo copyThe good news is that the kids got to sleep in a bit on a school day.

And while it’s becoming increasingly clear that our teens don’t get enough sleep — and a movement to delay the start time in Chester County high schools is slowly gaining momentum — that my twins, freshmen at Unionville High School got an extra couple of hours of sleep underlines the inherent unfairness of the Keystone Exams, as well as House Bill 805, which is likely, thankfully, to be vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

I’m not bragging here, but Unionville-Chadds Ford School District is able to afford extra bus runs to allow their students taking Keystone Exams to sleep in on test days. Not every school district can afford to do this — immediately putting less fortunate school districts at a disadvantage. And no, I’m not suggesting that Unionville is doing anything wrong — it’s doing all it can to see that its students succeed and its all by the book.

The problem is this: the Keystone is a high-stakes test, one that students must pass in order to graduate, starting with the class of 2018. If student A takes the test well-rested and prepared and student B takes it with a minimum of prep, no extra sleep and so on, is this really a fair measurement — or worse, a standard for graduation? Also really lousy is the idea that teachers will be evaluated on how their students do on the Keystones.

I’m all in favor of standardized tests as a metric and fair evaluation of teachers, it’s just that the Keystone isn’t one.

The Keystone is a misbegotten mess of a test rushed into service by whichever acting Secretary of Education happened to be serving that week a couple of years back during the Corbett Administration and should have been shelved by the incoming Wolf Administration, but wasn’t.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the legislature want to end seniority for layoffs and use evaluations — in part based on Keystone results — instead, if layoffs are needed. In the ballsy euphemism used to name the bill — The Protecting Excellent Teachers Act — translated from politicianese: “hosing teacher unions and expensive teachers with seniority, based on a pathetically flawed test that virtually none of the legislators themselves could pass act” our legislators miss the point: they have habitually underfunded education for a generation and then, in a moment of unabashed greed in 2001, worsened things with the pension fiasco.

And the budget mess — let’s be completely honest — should be enough to prompt massive layoffs in our legislature. And be angry with Gov. Wolf all you want (with some reason), but those arguing that it was a bipartisan mess (as I heard a local elected official argue this week) either are painfully uninformed or willfully dissembling: Speaker of the House Mike Turzai kneecapped his own House Majority Leader Dave Reed to scuttle a deal that Reed, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, and Democratic legislative leaders and Wolf agreed to just before Christmas, leading to an extension of months to the budget dispute.

So while it’s crystal clear that our legislative leaders have failed miserably — and deserve widespread “furloughs” — I don’t see them giving up their seniority perks any time soon (or per diem or ending legalized bribery with unlimited campaign contributions) so why should teachers?

Which brings me to another firing offense — this time by the entire Chester County legislative delegation.

In March, 11 of the county’s 12 school district superintendents sent the legislators a letter in essence telling them to get their act together and pass a budget within the state statute timeframe. In other words, to to their jobs.

Of the nine state representatives and three state senators (well, two in fairness, as Dominic Pileggi’s seat was vacant until last week) in Chester County, one responded.


Tim Hennessey (R-26) was our “winner” and although we haven’t seen it, it was described to us as angry and warning superintendents to stay out of politics.

The lack of a response by the other 10 legislators is completely unacceptable — school districts are required by law to complete their budgets by June 30 or the superintendent’s license faces suspension. Finalizing that budget when you have no idea what the state aid numbers is a little difficult, so it’s clear that the superintendents who signed the letter have more than a point and deserved (as did we all) a response.

To be blunt: a polite response along the lines of “we were not happy with the budget process, either, and understand how it complicated both your budget process and day to day operations of your districts. While the atmosphere in Harrisburg continues to be difficult, I will work to bridge the gap, while protecting all Pennsylvanians. I would be happy to share more on the process with you and your Board of Education and welcome your input on how the budget process impacts your school district.”

See? Was that so hard?

But the lack of response — and I don’t even know where to start with Hennessey’s reported response — says either our county’s legislators are grossly incompetent or worse (and it’s hard to believe something would be worse): that their “Royal Electednesses” don’t think they have to deign to respond to the public.

In other words: “Let ‘em eat cake.”

And we know how that story ended.

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  1. MJ Walter says:

    Keystones for Honors Algebra students in middle school AND math PSSAs in the same year? Ridiculous. Filling in Scantron bubbles more than likely is not a true indicator of a person’s success or non-success throughout life.

  2. Nancy Bercich says:

    I applaud you for speaking out against these high stakes tests. I agree the Keystones are unfair. Let me just say they are no more or less fair than the PSSAs. I would like to state that not everyone agrees with you assertion that standardized tests as a metric are a fair evaluation of teachers. As a parent I do not believe my children’s test scores in any way reflect the quality of the instruction their teachers provide. At best they reflect the teacher’s ability to stay focused on the test at the exclusion of topics that may be better suited for the students in the class. In my own experience, tying teacher evaluations to student test outcomes has resulted in teachers pressuring children to perform rather than encouraging them to learn. In addition, as a parent, I do not want my children’s school timewasted. Any test that is not used as a learning tool is wasting my children’s time. Understand, I am not opposed to testing, just testing that is not used as a learning tool. When one of our sons takes their math unit test, they receive feedback. They learn from their mistakes. This does not happen with either the Keystones or the PSSAs. Near as I can tell, these tests are only being used to point fingers ans provide useless school ratings.

  3. Roger J. Brown says:

    H. L. Mencken expressed the thoughts of many citizens regarding some of our state legislators: “There is no more public spirit among them than among so many burglars or streetwalkers….The typical lawmaker is wholly devoid of principle…If the right pressure could be applied to him he would be cheerfully in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism.”

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