New law allowing vo-tech students to skip Keystone Exams a step in right direction

Bravo to Pennsylvania lawmakers for the common-sense approach to academics versus vocational education in our public schools.

Gov. Tom Wolf has signed House Bill 202 — also known as Act 6 — so that Pennsylvania students looking to work as carpenters, auto mechanics, machinists or in other trades won’t have to pass a statewide academic test to graduate from high school.

The bill’s prime sponsor was state Rep. Mike Turzai, also the House speaker.

Also supporting the bill were area state Reps. Mike Hanna, Kerry Benninghoff, Scott Conklin and Garth Everett.

The rule starts with the 2018-2019 school year in Pennsylvania.

Instead of the Keystone Exams, students could pass what’s called the NOCTI (National Occupational Competency Testing Institute) or NIMS (National Institute for Metalworking Skills) exams.

These are more suited to a student’s particular trade and include a written, multiple-choice section as well as a performance component. Nearly all seniors enrolled in career and technical schools are already required to take the tests.

“Whether they are working and learning in the classroom, in the lab, in the shop, in the field or in the garage, our young people are always striving and succeeding across a wide variety of fields,” said Wolf in a statement.

“With this measure, Pennsylvania will recognize that diversity and will no longer hold all students to the standard of a Keystone Examination, which too often doesn’t reflect the reality of a large sector of students’ educational experience.”

Act 6 implements one of four recommendations made by the state Department of Education (PDE) pursuant to Act 1 of 2016, which paused the Keystone Exam graduation requirement for a period of two years (delayed until the 2018-2019 school year).

Specifically, Act 1 required PDE to investigate alternative options for a state level graduation requirement and provide those recommendations to the General Assembly.

Gov. Wolf and many people believe that passing a high school exit exam is not the sole valid measure of proficiency and career readiness, and that “Pennsylvania should take a more holistic approach by enabling students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills through multiple valid measures.”

The Keystones are offered as end-of-course exams in math, literature and biology across the state. Proficiency in the exams is expected to be a graduation requirement beginning in the 2018-19 year, although a bill has been introduced in the state Senate that would eliminate the Keystones and measure student proficiency in other ways, including the SATs.

The state Department of Education does not have complete data showing how career and technical students perform on the Keystones compared to their peers.

The leaders who drafted the legislation put it this way: It is clear that postsecondary success looks different for students pursuing different postsecondary career pathways and that using the Keystone Exams as a one-size-fits-all option for CTE students does not recognize that different measures should be used to demonstrate readiness for these different pathways. Please join us in recognizing the need to tailor our state’s education policy to the needs and demands of these students and the Commonwealth’s evolving workforce.

Now, the Legislature needs to find other areas from which to wrest control from the Education Department and put it in the hands of local school districts.