Taking a Keystone Exam


Keystone exams are end-of-course assessments that are designed to test a student’s proficiency in certain subjects. Beginning in 2017, Pennsylvania requires students to take and pass these exams before being allowed to graduate. If a student passes the exam, he or she is said to be “Proficient” or “Advanced” in the subject matter. A student who fails the exam will receive a score of “Below Basic” or “Basic.”

Currently there are Keystone exams in the following subject areas:

  • Algebra I
  • Biology
  • Literature

Each exam is made up of multiple choice questions and constructed-response, or open ended questions. Multiple-choice questions are worth about 60-75% of the total score, depending on the test. Constructed response questions ask students to explain, analyze, describe, or compare. Most require students to show their work or explain their reasoning. Some questions will also require students to perform calculations or create graphs, plots, or drawings. Evaluators are trained in applying a pre-determined scoring system score the written responses. The constructed-response questions are between 25-40 percent of the total score.

The exams are not timed, meaning that students may take as much time as they need to complete the exam. In general, most students need about 1-1.5 hours to complete each module, or 2-3 hours per test.

Keystone exams are offered in the Winter, Spring, and Summer. Because many students take Algebra 1, Biology, and Literature before their senior year of high school, students should take Keystone exams in the Spring of the year in which they take the particular subject. For example, if a student takes Biology in 10th grade, the student should take the Biology Keystone exam in the Spring of 10th grade. Students who do not take a particular course (because of modifications to the academic curriculum based on an Individualized Education Program) must take the Keystone exam for that course no later than Spring of 11th grade.

Tests can be taken in paper or online format. Students who take the online version will have tutorials and online training programs available prior to taking the test. The online exam has a “Help” feature that is available to the student during the exam.

Tests must be administered, proctored, and monitored by school staff who are certified through the Pennsylvania State Test Administration Training (PSTAT). The Pennsylvania Department of Education strongly suggests that teachers not administer or proctor exams for their own students in order to prevent suspicion of testing anomalies. Other people including a student’s teacher or aide may be in the room, however, as long as they sign a Test Security Certification.

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Last Updated: August 14, 2020

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