State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is seen Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017 at a meeting at Pitt-Johnstown.

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania could save money and better serve students by dumping the Keystone Exams and instead paying to have all students take the SAT or ACT tests, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Wednesday.

The proposal has not yet been embraced by the state Department of Education.

“Pennsylvania should aggressively explore using a nationally recognized test that can open new doors for students, rather than continuing to spend money on an exam that is no longer required,” DePasquale said. “For less than what Pennsylvania spends on the Keystone Exams, it could instead pick up the tab for every high school student to take the PSAT or SAT.”

Federal law requires that all states administer a secondary-level standardized test. But since 2015, when the No Child Left Behind Act was replaced, the state-specific Keystone Exams were no longer required, he said.

A dozen states have already moved in that direction of using the SAT or ACT to satisfy federal requirements for testing students before graduation, he said. Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Michigan and New Hampshire use the SAT and Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Wyoming use the ACT, DePasquale said.

He added that compared to what it paid for the Keystone Exams, the state would have saved about $1.2 million in 2018-19 by simply paying for all high school students to take the SAT in 11th and 12th grade and the PSAT in 9th and 10th grade.

Not so fast, said Matt Stem, the Department of Education’s deputy secretary for elementary and secondary. While education officials are open to the idea of abandoning the Keystone Exams, the alternative needs to be aligned to state education standards, he said.

“It has to be a thoughtful process” used to determine whether and how to switch away from the Keystone Exams, he said.

It’s unclear how closely the SAT or ACT tests would mirror Pennsylvania’s education standards. “Some of the states that have begun using the SAT have found it’s not” aligned to their standards, Stem said.

For instance, the U.S. Department of Education warned Connecticut that the state needed to show more evidence of how the SAT reflects that state's academic standards, according to Education Week, a Maryland-based publication covering education trends. The federal Education department questioned how the SATs would serve as a measure of student achievement, instead of its original purpose at a college admissions test, Education Week reported.

Stem said state officials would also want to ensure that any test used is suitable for testing students with special needs.

The Department of Education is still paying the tests’ creator, Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp., tens of millions of dollars each year to administer and score the Keystone Exams, DePasquale said.

Between 2015 and 2021, Pennsylvania will have spent nearly $100 million on the Keystone Exams.

“When the federal law changed in 2015, why didn’t Pennsylvania begin to phase out the Keystone Exams? I could understand if they used them for a short time after that, but it’s been four years," DePasquale added.

Stem said that the questions used in the Keystone Exam are developed by Pennsylvania educators. He added that while the state continues to pay the testing contractor, the state’s standardized testing costs have dropped 30 percent since Gov. Tom Wolf took office in 2015.

DePasquale was joined at a Wednesday press conference by state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County, a long-time critic of the Keystone Exams. Dinniman said he hopes the auditor general’s review spurs the state to get rid of the exams.

“The SATs are a better alternative,” he said.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.