Education: Pennsylvania Common Core Brings Controversy Among District Community

As high school students in the graduating class of 2017 in the School District of Philadelphia are preparing for college and taking the SATs, they will also have another weight to add to their already heavy load of stress.

Members of this graduating class will be required to take the Keystone Exams, which measure their proficiency in algebra, literature and biology. Those who do not demonstrate proficiency on these tests run the risk of not receiving a high school diploma at the end of their senior year.

The Keystone Exams were established in Pennsylvania as part of nationwide Common Core standards. These guidelines were developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices as a way to standardize mathematics and English language arts literacy in kindergarten through 12th grade. Through these tests, creators hope to eliminate the variation in academic standards from state to state. Its practices have since been adopted in 43 states across the country.

Pennsylvania has chosen to adopt its own Core Standards, which slightly differ from the Common Core standards implemented by other states and were approved by the State Board of Education in September. The main difference is that Pennsylvania Common Core will encompass various subject areas on its tests in addition to general English/language arts and math.


Despite being created as a means of measuring success in students, parents like Karen Lowry, who chose to move her children out of the School District of Philadelphia, feel that schools are placing too much importance on Common Core testing, which also includes Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), which students take from third through eighth grade, and again in 11th grade.

“I don’t feel that they are actually teaching the kids anymore, instead they are all about this testing and are geared towards ‘pass the test, pass the test, pass the test,’” she said. “They are only preparing kids to pass these tests and not to succeed in the real world.”

Alison McDowell, who is a parent of a child in the School District of Philadelphia as well as a member of the Philadelphia Alliance for Public Schools and a member of the Caucus of Working Educators, believes that these tests fail to measure a student as a whole.

“My concern with these tests is that it distills students down to their performance on a very limited number of days,” she said. “It does not look at the entirety of their body of work during the current year.”

Though these exams are given in school districts throughout the state, the School District of Philadelphia is just one of many that finds gathering materials to prepare for these tests difficult, due to the budget cuts in school funding during Gov. Tom Corbett’s term.


“In Philadelphia, children are at an even greater disadvantage,” said Karel Kilimnik, a retired teacher and a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. “There is no time and there is no money to buy any of these prep materials compared to in suburban districts, where parents are a little wealthier and can send their students to be tutored.”

Bill Davidson, former teacher at George W. Nebinger Elementary and Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, believes that the problems with testing in the School District of Philadelphia extend outside of just Common Core testing.

“The way it works in Philadelphia is that kids take a test in seventh grade and then high schools admit them like college, depending on their test scores,” he said. “Many kids demonstrate a lot of maturity by realizing that they are behind and they really try to rally and put forth a couple years of hard work in hopes that they can get into a good high school, but in many cases the gap has already been created.”

According to Davidson, many teachers are faced with pressure to bring their students up to grade level, even when they are two or three years behind.

“Too often the principal will say, ‘I need you to teach to the standards,’” Davidson said. “So the fifth-grade teacher, regardless of what they think, knows that they are going to be judged on the scores of their fifth graders.”

He said the bigger issue in city education lies in creating a solid foundation for students.

“Unless we can address the fact that as long as kids are moving on to fifth grade without having mastered third grade mathematical concepts, we are going to continue to underachieve globally,” he said. “Teachers are trying to build a house on quicksand.”

In the long run, it is about achieving student success, which parent McDowell believes will not be a result of the Pennsylvania Common Core.

“I really think that our students deserve better than standardized tests,” she said.]

– Text, images and video by Lindsey Murray


  1. the difference is the attitudes groomed by the parents. Parents have a role to produce students who can and want to develop. Way too much pressure is put on the school district for a shared responsibility of education. if the parents aren’t involved don’t expect much from the student.#parentsneed2stepup #partnership

  2. After seeing the actual curriculum these days, I think they need to alter that. The new way of doing things allow for a very long period of subject matter that does not apply to the real world, and very little that does. Math, in particular, uses a small amount of time on the basic adding, subtracting, mult. & division while spending weeks on end with algebra, geometry, etc. The basics are needed to be grounded within the roots of the minds. If not, there is a ton of math that will be too difficult to take on. The pushing of studying for the tests is a lot of time. The testing is creating a whole lot of anxiety all across the board between the parents, the teachers, and the children. In spite of what many claim where the new way of doing math is used all the time….I find any examples so far very lame to convince me that it is true. My own child wants to quit school do to this stuff. He is actually a very smart child. He picks up on things when I sit down and show him my way from my own incredible school upbringing. However, I do not understand the new stuff often. And when I do I am very puzzled as to why they have it play out the way they do when presenting it to kids. Not everyone takes math in this way. Art class…..from what I can see, is ruined. Learning how to draw in art was one of my better classes growing up. It is not that anymore at all. I told my son what my class was like growing up. He stared at me, and after about 20 seconds, he started crying. I had an incredible art teacher who taught me and gave me skills to paint, draw and do amazing things with art materials. It has been a great escape for me throughout the years. Art now is something different altogether. It is more of a history lesson on what we learn by looking at art past. There is nothing fun in this at all. Language is reading a given story over and over. My son is not good with this stuff. He is frustrated and wants to quit school. I am so sad about it because he is so smart and has dreams to become a politician. He has such a good head on his shoulders but common core has left him feeling like he is too stupid. He cries over this. Perhaps I am overlooking something and don’t get it because I am NOT a genius like Bill Gates. But I somehow can’t help but wonder if the board of education is making a huge mistake and leaving our next generations with a lack of good skills. It just seems like such a farce to me. Like they are purposely dumbing down society.

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