History and Current Status of Keystone Exams in Pennsylvania


In 2010, Pennsylvania passed a law that supported the creation of 10 end-of-course assessments, known as “Keystone Exams,” in the following subject areas: Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, Literature, English Composition, Biology, Chemistry, U.S. History, World History, and Civics and Government. These exams would serve two purposes: (1) establishing high school graduation requirements for students throughout the state; and (2) providing a way for the state and the federal government to hold high schools accountable for educating students.

Students began taking the tests in 2012, with a plan to have Keystones become a graduation requirement in 2017. However, as of 2016, only three of the 10 exams had been developed – Algebra 1, Biology, and Literature.

One of the reasons for the delay in test development is that students have not performed well on the tests. Student scores are classified as Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, or Advanced. More students than expected scored Below Basic or Basic. This left many districts scrambling to provide supplemental classes and services to students in an effort to improve students’ scores so that they could graduate.

Additionally, state Regulations allow students who are unable to score “Proficient” on a Keystone exam after two attempts to try to demonstrate proficiency through the completion of a “Project Based Assessment.” Again, districts had to work to design appropriate projects and had to determine how to measure “proficiency” on them.

In February 2016, Pennsylvania delayed the requirement of passing Keystone exams in order for a student to be eligible to graduate. Students were still required to take the exams, with limited exceptions, but they did not have to pass them.

In 2018 Governor Wolf signed Senate Bill 1095 into law that shifted away from the states reliance on standardized testing as a graduation requirement. Senate Bill 1095 extends the options for students to demonstrate graduation readiness. These options include:

  • Scoring proficient or advanced on each Keystone exam- Algebra I, Literature, and Biology
  • Earning a satisfactory composite score on the Algebra I, Literature, and Biology Keystone Exams. The passing composite score will be available in August 2019.
  • Earning a passing grade on the courses associated with each Keystone Exam, and satisfactorily complete one of the following: an alternative assessment (SAT, PSAT, ACT, ASVAB, Gold Level ACT WorkKeys), advanced coursework (AP, IB, concurrent enrollment courses), pre-apprenticeship, or acceptance in a 4-year nonprofit institution of higher education for college-level coursework.
  • Earning a passing grade on the courses associated with each Keystone Exam, and pass the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) or the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS) assessment in an approved Career and Technical Education concentration.
  • Earning a passing grade on the courses associated with each Keystone Exam, and demonstrate readiness for postsecondary engagement through three pieces of evidence from the student’s career portfolio aligned to student goals and career plan. Examples of evidence will include ACT WorkKeys, SAT Subject tests, AP, IB and concurrent coursework, higher education acceptance, community learning project, completion of an internship, externship or co-op or full-time employment.

These requirements will take effect beginning with the graduating class of 2022. There are no statewide graduation requirements for the classes or 2019, 2020, 2021 but students, parents, and guardians should reference their institutions local policies determining graduation.

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Last Updated: August 14, 2020

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