There's some writing on the wall for Pennsylvania's school districts, and their students better be able to read and understand it.

In Pennsylvania's Code for Education, Chapter 4 is titled Academic Standards and Assessment. Since 2009, additional regulations proposed under Chapter Four would establish a new graduation requirement, that students pass Keystone Exams in a variety of core subjects.

Thursday, members of the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) adopted the new measuring stick by a 12-1 vote. The PSBA has 17 voting members, but 13 were present for the vote.

Tamaqua Area School Board President Larry Wittig has been a PSBA board member since 2001. Members are appointed by the governor. Wittig explained what comes next for the proposed Chapter Four changes.

"Next the changes go to the Senate and House Education Committees, and they may comment on it; and it also goes to the attorney general for review before it comes back to us (the PSBA)," Wittig said. "It's a done deal as far as we're concerned."

The PSBA and the state Department of Education worked together on the initiative. As originally proposed, students would have to pass 10 Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement and the Keystone Exams would count as one-third of the students' final grade. After several years of discussion, both entities reached a compromise:

Ÿ Implementing the exams as a graduation requirement will begin with the Class of 2017, whose students will be required to have passed Keystone Exams in Algebra 1, Biology and English Language. Additional Keystone Exams will be added in successive years.

Ÿ If a student fails a Keystone Exam in a subject two times, the student can complete a Project Based Assessment, which must demonstrate the student's proficiency and knowledge of the subject.

Ÿ The Keystone Exam is a stand-alone assessment and does not count as a portion of a student's grade.

Ÿ Students who pass each required Keystone Exam still must also meet their district's graduation requirements to graduate.

Wittig also explained a common misunderstanding about the Keystone Exams. Many people may envision a huge study room filled with high school seniors, nervously licking their number two pencils, worried about failing a Keystone Exams and not graduating with their class.

That's not the way it will work.

"It doesn't make sense that students would study Algebra 1 as freshmen, and then wait three years to take the Keystone Exam for Algebra 1," Wittig said. "The exam for a particular core area will be given at a time to correspond with its relation to the curriculum."

In fact, for many districts, adjusting to the Keystone Exam requirement will involve just that realigning the district's curriculum so that students can focus on what they must and should know to graduate. The Tamaqua Area School Board and educators, reading the writing on the wall, recently revamped the district's curriculum with that in mind; and is also tightening the graduation requirements for its eighth graders.

In time, the Keystone Exam requirement will standardize the way to assess a student's knowledge, Wittig said.

"Taking the Keystone Exam will be like taking a final exam in a subject, and to pass a student must score as proficient or above," Wittig said. "With this requirement, a high school diploma will mean the same thing, across the state."