Graduation Requirements in Pennsylvania


Pennsylvania high school graduation requirements vary between school districts. Examples of requirements across the state include having a specified number of credits in various courses (such as 4 years of English, 3 years of math, and 3 years of science), a graduation project, and most controversially, passing a standardized test.

Standardized tests are used to show that a student has learned the content of a certain class. If a student passes the test, the student is considered to be “Proficient” in that subject. Using proficiency on standardized testing as a graduation requirement has been a topic of much discussion in Pennsylvania.

Keystone Exams

Pennsylvania requires students graduating in 2019 or later to receive a passing grade (“Proficient”) on three standardized tests. These tests are called “Keystone Exams.” Currently there are Keystone Exams for the following subjects:

  • Algebra 1
  • Biology
  • Literature

Although Pennsylvania law does not require Keystone proficiency for graduation until 2019, some school districts require students graduating as early as 2017 to pass the exams. Given this unique situation, it is important that students and parents check with their local school district to determine specific district requirements for graduation.

Who Must Take Keystone Exams?

All Pennsylvania students must take Keystone exams unless:

  • A religious exemption is approved, or
  • A student is classified as having a “most significant cognitive disability.”

Students for whom a religious exemption is approved must demonstrate subject proficiency on a Project Based Assessment, discussed below and in its own article.

As discussed in the article, Graduation Requirements for Pennsylvania Students with IEPs, most students receiving special education services in Pennsylvania must take Keystone Exams.

What Happens if a Student Fails a Keystone Exam?

Student scores are classified as Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, or Advanced. In order to pass an exam, a student’s total score must fall in the “Proficient” or “Advanced” category. Each exam contains two “modules” or sections. It is possible for a student to receive different classifications on each module of the test. To pass the exam, students do not need to be Proficient (or Advanced) on both modules. However, if the score on one of the modules is not high enough to balance out the score on the non-Proficient module, the student’s overall exam score will be below passing.

  • Supplemental Instruction

Students who fail to meet “Proficient” standards on Keystone exams will be offered supplementary instruction. For students who will graduate in 2019 and beyond, supplementary instruction is required for retakes. The amount and delivery of supplemental instruction often varies across districts and even between students within a district.

  • Project Based Assessments

Following supplementary instruction, if a student is still unable to reach proficiency on an exam, the student may be allowed to complete a Project Based Assessment. Project Based Assessments are aligned with Keystone exam modules and are administered by school staff and scored by regional panels of educators. A student must complete a project for each module of an exam on which the student was not proficient. More information about Project Based Assessments can be found in a separate article (see link below).


An alternative to high school graduation is passing an equivalency exam. All states use the GED (General Educational Development) tests as a basis for awarding high school equivalency credentials. More information can be found in a separate article.

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Last Updated: June 9, 2020

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