FILE - PA Andy Dinniman, Eugene DePasquale 7-10-2019

Pennsylvania state Sen. Andy Dinniman, accompanied by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, talks about the state's Keystone Exams during a news conference July 10, 2019.

It might be a relief to thousands of Pennsylvania high-schoolers to hear that there are members of the state’s government who hate the Keystone Exams as much – if not more so – than they do.

But the parents of those same students would probably be dismayed to hear exactly how much the state has committed, financially speaking, to an annual exercise that is no longer required by the federal government.

According to Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and state Sen. Andy Dinniman, who held a joint news conference on the topic, Pennsylvania is locked into a contract with Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corporation to administer standardized testing, including the Keystone Exam for high school students, through 2021.

The cost for the Keystone Exam alone, over the course of the 2015-21 contract, is $100 million, DePasquale said.

“My question is this – when the federal law changed in 2015, why didn't Pennsylvania begin to phase out Keystone Exams?” DePasquale said. “I could understand if they use them for a short period of time after that, but it's been four years, and will cost taxpayers nearly $100 million by the end of the contract for tests our students do not even need to take.”

As if the expense alone wasn’t a big enough concern, just as worrisome to DePasquale and Dinniman was the fact that they found it exceptionally difficult to get information from the Pennsylvania Department of Education on the scale of the state’s commitment.

“My team had to make repeated requests to the Pennsylvania Department of Education officials just to get basic information about public tax money that should be available to anyone that asks,” DePasquale said. “PDE staff spoke with my team and promised to be transparent. However, we waited for months for additional information that they promised to send us, and it was only [Tuesday] that PDE started answering our remaining questions.”

Dinniman was similarly appalled by PDE’s reticence on the topic. And he noted that questions have been raised for years as to whether the exams even bring any value to the state’s education system.

“The Department of Education itself said they are not an accurate or adequate indicator of career or academic readiness,” Dinniman said. “So what I'm always surprised about is, they said it and then they continue to use it. These tests have faced opposition from almost every educational organization that exists. And when we got rid of the requirement and put in [more] pathways to graduation, this was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House.”

DePasquale’s suggestion for the state is to abolish the Keystone Exams and switch to using a college entrance exam such as the SAT or ACT, as at least 12 other states have done.

“For less than what Pennsylvania spends on Keystones, it can instead pick up the tab for all 540,595 high school students to take the PSAT or the SAT, meet the same requirement and also fulfill what for many of our low-income students is a necessary component for them to try to go into college,” he said.

While DePasquale and Dinniman are both Democrats, some of their concerns about the Keystone Exams were echoed this week by Republican lawmakers.

Rep. Aaron Bernstine tweeted that school district superintendents should refuse to administer the exams, and Rep. Jason Ortitay replied that he would be looking into the issue using his authority as chairman of a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

“As subcommittee chairman on Education for the appropriations committee, I plan to hold a hearing on all assessment tests this year,” Ortitay said. “The state is spending over $50 million per year on these tests.”

To Dinniman, the Keystone Exams are a failure in every respect, inadequately measuring performance while wasting money and taking away from classroom instruction. And to DePasquale, the way the contract was awarded sends up red flags, too.

“We had very ample evidence that the company was basically dictating the price of the contract, as opposed to the other way around,” he said. “Now I don't fault the company for that, they're running a business. … But I want to be clear, this is not the only instance we've seen of this. The state of Pennsylvania, … we've got to do a better job at contracting, because we waste too many tax dollars that could be better spent on other critical investments.”

Regional Editor

Dave Lemery is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship newspaper was named best weekly in Illinois, and he has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.