As the school year began in August, Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] mailed students’ households notification of a law passed four years earlier that is about to change the way high school graduation is determined statewide.
PPS and other districts statewide are now four months from facing the first big test of Act 158, which introduces four alternative pathways for graduation that students can take instead of gaining a score of proficient on all three Keystone exams. The pathways range from getting passing scores on Advanced Placement [AP] tests to doing a career and technical education [CTE] course.
Act 158 was passed with the intent to make graduation more accessible and practical for students, but some teachers and education advocates have expressed concerns about the true accessibility of the new requirements, given the state’s continued school funding challenges.
“The problem is our schools are not properly or adequately funded to enable students to reach standards to perform to proficiency on Keystone exams or the opportunities to meet the requirements for the other pathways,” said Kristina Moon, a senior attorney at the Education Law Center, an advocacy group focused on improving the quality of education across the state.
The Education Law Center this month won a favorable Commonwealth Court decision in a decade-old lawsuit in which they and several school districts across the state showed “manifest deficiencies between low-wealth districts … and their more affluent counterparts,” as Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer wrote in a 786-page decision. The decision did not impose a new funding scheme, and it may yet be appealed.
“Those students [in underfunded schools] absolutely are at a significant disadvantage without the resources, without the support, without sufficient academic and vocational support to meet the standards” of Act 158, said Moon.
Some who work in school districts around Allegheny County share similar concerns around funding, but expressed confidence that their students will reach the new graduation requirements.
Carrie Woodard, director of student support services at PPS, said she’s heard concerns, but expects that scenarios that could jeopardize graduation are “uncommon.”
“I oversee the school counselors,” she said, “so I’m hearing their concerns and graduation is right around the corner.”
The winding road of graduation reform
“Even if this system isn’t perfect, it’s better than it was before,” said Brian Stamford, the program director for accountability and innovative practices at Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a public education agency that provides specialized services to the county’s suburban school districts.
Before the passage of Act 158, the Keystone exams took center stage in graduation requirements. To graduate, students needed to get a score of proficient on all three Keystone exams — algebra, biology and literature.
These standardized tests, like many other standardized tests across the country, were developed to ensure that public schools were following accountability guidelines established by federal education laws like the Every Students Succeeds Act.
“The federal government says in order to receive federal education funding, you have to make sure you adhere to this,” said Stamford. “Around 2014, some legislation was signed into law that mandated that all students had to score proficient on all three Keystones.”
Some students were struggling to meet these new Keystone requirements.
Two-thirds of the state’s students get scores of proficient on all three Keystone exams. For this reason, an alternative graduation requirement was offered that allowed students to do a project based assessment [PBA], a project aligned with the topics of the Keystone tests they found to be a struggle.
“The PBA was supposed to provide an alternate pathway, aligned to the content to help students,” Stamford said. “But the challenge with that is it was very resource-intensive on school districts. You almost had to dedicate another teacher to that process, and many hours to get a student through that.”
Stamford said he believes Act 158 was developed to provide more opportunities for students to meet graduation requirements without relying on the Keystones or the PBAs.
The introduction of the five different graduation pathways is intended to help students prove their readiness for postsecondary education in ways that best fit their interests.
“We’ve seen over the past decade a move towards better preparing our students for the post-high school world,” said Stamford. “Act 158 provides much better opportunities for students to prepare themselves for life after high school.”
The act applies to all public high school students in the state, though students with individualized education plans can instead fulfill requirements in their IEPs.
Other students who don’t have IEPs are able to apply for a waiver to opt out of the graduation requirements if they are experiencing extenuating circumstances such as a serious illness or a death in their immediate family.
If a school district grants more than 5% of students in a graduating class a waiver, though, the school will be required to submit a plan for improvement and will be audited by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“Five percent is a very narrow threshold,” said Andrea Dreger, an English and film appreciation teacher at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. “For the first year of all these alterations, it seems to be unforgiving.”
Does Act 158 make graduation accessible, or just complicated?
Despite the seeming good intentions of Act 158, some believe that its pathways fail to address the lack of educational resources that made attaining the original graduation requirements so difficult for many students.
In December, officials from the Philadelphia school district reported that 52% of seniors in the school system have met the Act 158 graduation requirements, leaving just less than half of seniors yet to meet them with about seven months left before graduation.
Pittsburgh teacher Dreger said she was concerned about her district’s seniors, noting that the previous system “was pretty straightforward” and the new set of pathways is complex and perhaps not well understood by students.
“I understand that the intention was making graduation more accessible but I don’t know that the changes will have that impact,” she said.
“Even though I’m not a senior teacher, I would think that everybody should know this information so we can kind of put the bug in kids’ ears as early as possible,” said Dreger. “I teach predominantly freshmen, and we don’t want them to be in a similar position as a senior where they are still unaware of the new expectations.”
PPS did not give exact numbers on the amount of seniors who have already met or on their way to meeting the pathways offered by Act 158.
One of the concerns that PPS has faced, according to Woodard, has been with students transferring from outside of the district. Out-of-district students usually haven’t had the chance to take Keystones or get other opportunities such as joining a CTE program or finding a job or apprenticeship in the Pittsburgh area, she said.
“We do have to get creative, but our principals are super supportive,” said Woodard.
Students who are good test takers have multiple pathways to take — pathways one, two and four all involving testing — but students who struggle with exams are presented with fewer alternatives by Act 158.
Pathways one, two and four all require students to perform well on testing, whether the Keystones or alternatives such as AP exams. Students who are likely to perform well on these alternative assessments would likely perform well on the Keystones, making these alternative pathways unhelpful for students who struggle with testing, according to Eddie Wilson, assistant to the superintendent of the Woodland Hills School District.
“If you’re getting a three, four or five on AP exams, then you’re also likely to be able to meet the composite score” on the Keystones, said Wilson. “So what we’re seeing is that there are a lot of scholars who are graduating on pathway one or two, either the Keystone passing or the Keystone composite, that then can also pass through one of the other pathways. But there’s not a lot of the reverse — of scholars that are able to go on (vocational pathways) who also qualify for pathway one or two.”
For students who struggle to fulfill the testing requirements, the CTE concentrator and evidence-based pathways — as well as some of the other options, like getting accepted into a college — are intended to provide roads to graduation. In practice, some of those who work in education recognize that not all schools in the state can give their students access to meet all of these requirements.
“What students need is more teachers, small class sizes, counselors, remedial support” and plenty of other support systems “to make the alternative pathways functional and available to students,” noted Moon.
Underfunded schools struggle to be able to provide all these resources as most of them are “expensive to incorporate,” Moon said.
Stamford agreed that a lack of resources may prevent some schools from being able to give their students access to all the pathways but said he is confident that most districts will be able to get students to meet the new requirements.
“If an apprenticeship (for example) is not a viable option, there are other options. … There are other things that the students could do,” said Stamford.
School districts haven’t been completely left on their own to help students meet the requirements. The Department of Education has done training with districts and given them access to a data collection tool to help them track the pathways various students should follow. Wilson called that an “extremely successful” tool.
Wilson made it clear that Woodland Hills would have liked to see more on-the-ground tactical support, such as timelines of students meeting graduation requirements. Overall, Wilson said he felt that the department gave his district a higher level of support “than for many other initiatives.”
“I personally have had constant communication” with the department, said PPS’s Woodard. “I reach out to them frequently [and tell them] about what we are experiencing at PPS and if they have thought through how we’re going to support specific populations of students.”
While PPS provides an extensive CTE program, many of the alternative pathways are not accessible to students in the district or surrounding districts in Allegheny County. Alternative assessments like International Baccalaureate [IB] exams are not offered to a majority of schools. In Allegheny County, only Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 and Upper St. Clair High School offer IB instruction.
Other pathways are not accessible largely due to their physical distance from the city; the ACT WorkKeys nearest testing location, for instance, is in Lisbon, Ohio. The distances to many of these opportunities make it difficult for students to reach especially if they don’t have reliable access to transportation.
Beyond the physical and resource-based limitations, many of the alternative pathways are very academically difficult for students to achieve, according to both Moon and Wilson.
The AP tests are notoriously hard for students, with some having passing rates of around 50%. Concurrent enrollment courses involve college-level rigor. CTE courses and apprenticeship programs are less academically rigorous but require commitment from students.
Stamford said that difficulty is not necessarily a bad thing.
“I think it is important to frame the graduation requirements through not the lens of what is easiest for students to attain but it’s really important to frame it through what’s best for kids in the long run,” he said.
Exams may be too pricey for some
“One of the barriers that we’ve identified is a financial barrier,” Wilson said, citing the fourth pathway, alternative assessments. “The majority of those assessments cost money. So when we talk about disproportionality between socioeconomic status, it’s difficult for scholars who are coming from low-income backgrounds, families and communities to really find those alternative pathways.”
Alternative assessments like AP or SAT tests come with high price tags, especially for lower-income families. A single AP test costs $97 to take, and while a student can appeal for a fee reduction, this only brings the fee down to $53. Other alternative assessments that Act 158 allows students to take include the SAT ($60) and ACT ($66).
School districts in the county have worked to take on many of the costs tied to these tests. In 2018, for example, PPS began covering the cost of SAT tests for its students. That may not be a sustainable burden for some districts.
Stamford recognizes that there are some pathways “that do require reaching a minimum score on an assessment in which there is a cost associated with it. And yes, there are some districts who have found ways to subsidize that. I wouldn’t say all school districts have done that yet.”
“We’ve made all AP exams free of charge for scholars in the district this year,” said Wilson, of Woodland Hills. “Whether or not we will be able to continue to budget for that is up in the air.”
Will Act 158 help or hinder students approaching graduation? Educators agreed that their main priority is making sure that as many students as possible can graduate.
Moon summed it up: “Graduating from high school and receiving a high school diploma is very valuable.”
Dakota Castro-Jarrett is an editorial intern at PublicSource and can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Kalilah Stein.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.