Centre County Public Issues Forum to examine standardized testing in schools

Standardized tests have become a rite of spring. But that may be changing.

Started in 1998, annual Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests are a seasonal fixture in school districts across the state.

Administrators and teachers brace themselves for weeks of exams in March and April intended to measure proficiency in language arts and mathematics for grades 3-8. Students in grades 4 and 8 take a science PSSA. High school students used to take the PSSAs but now take new assessments called Keystone Exams.

This spring, however, brings something new — a Centre County Public Issues Forum aimed at fostering discussion about the role of standardized tests in schools in light of recent major changes to the Pennsylvania law regarding state educational assessments.

Organized by local educators and education professors and open to the public, the forum will take place from 6 to 8:30 p.m. April 24 at Schlow Centre Region Library.

“The idea is to have people start having conversations,” said State College Area School District school board member David Hutchinson, a forum co-organizer.

SCASD Superintendent Bob O’Donnell hopes that’s the case.

“It’ll probably generate some questions we need to work upon as a school community because of the changing nature of education,” he said.

Shifting standards

Since the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, the PSSA ritual had been a high stakes accountability exercise.

If schools failed to make “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, meeting proficiency benchmarks based on PSSA scores, they would be labeled as “failing” and face corrective measures.

NCLB mandated that all schools reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014. In recent years, however, concerned parents began questioning the fairness of weighting a standardized test so heavily.

At the same time, political leaders and educational professionals began to believe that reaching 100 percent proficiency was not realistic, especially since no provision was made for children with developmental disabilities.

Last year, Pennsylvania received a NCLB waiver from the federal government, relegating AYP to history. PSSA data now affect the Pennsylvania School Performance Profiles — which include academic scores out of 100 that are also calculated from Advanced Placement course participation, graduation rates and other non-test factors — and a new evaluation method for teachers and principals under the 2012 Act 82.

Starting this year, 15 percent of classroom teacher evaluations, for example, will draw from building level academic data. Another 15 percent now comes from the “Teacher Specific Rating,” which comprises five criteria that include their students’ standardized assessment performances.

These can be either the PSSAs or the Keystone Exams, “end-of-course” assessments for designated content such as algebra, biology and literature that students must pass to graduate, starting with the class of 2017.

Student test scores, however, cannot directly account for more than 5 percent of a teacher’s final effectiveness rating.

PSSA results also play a role in another evaluative measure: Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System data.

PVAAS is intended to chart individual academic growth over time. Starting this year, PVAAS data will be used as a small portion of some classroom teachers’ “Teacher Specific Rating” evaluation component.

“Any PVAAS data score attributable to a classroom teacher shall be based on a rolling average of available assessment data during the most recent three consecutive school years,” according to the Pennsylvania Code 22.

The state Department of Education will provide schools with teachers’ 3-year class PVAAS classroom averages, initially from 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 and then “every year thereafter for classroom teachers with three consecutive school years of PVAAS rating data,” according to the state code.

Assessment test scores and PVAAS data also will contribute to principal evaluations, beginning in 2014-15.

‘Fairer way to measure’

Acting state Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq frames the new assessment system as an improvement from the past focus on AYP.

“I think it’s a fairer way to measure our success,” she said. “I think that’s why we moved away from that.”

PSSA and Keystone tests, she said, work toward ensuring that all students are learning according to consistent standards throughout their education.

From the state’s perspective, Dumaresq said, the tests “measure the trajectory toward graduation by having certain standards at each grade level,” as well as serving as one way of holding schools and school districts accountable.

“Standardized testing is a way of checking that taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely, and in fact student achievement is occurring,” she said.

Asked what the state annually spends on PSSA tests, the PDE did not provide cost figures by press time.

However, figures from the PDE website indicate that the annual price tag for the PSSAs is about $30 million, while the initial development of the Keystone Exams cost the state taxpayers another $200 million, according to published reports from 2009.

In addition to serving as guide posts, Dumaresq said, the PSSA tests can help schools assess the effectiveness of their curricula.

“It’s kind of like putting a dipstick in once a year to say: ‘How are you doing?’ ” she said.

‘Doesn’t tell you why’

Many in the local educational community question whether PSSA tests aid curriculum development meaningfully.

“It provides some value, in that it can give districts and schools and the people who work in the schools, and even parents, some information about where a particular kid is, what they know and can do, and what groups of kids know and can do,” said Ed Fuller, a Penn State associate professor of education and the director of the Penn State Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis.

“But it’s a very rough indicator.”

Fuller said a PSSA score amounts to “a starting point.”

“The standardized testing results can lead you in a direction of where you need to gather more evidence or look more deeply,” he said. “For example, they may show there’s an achievement gap between our more affluent students and our economically disadvantaged students. It doesn’t tell you why. It doesn’t tell you how that arose. It doesn’t tell you what to do about it.”

Test critics agree that outside factors — such as students’ socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity and gender, home life, family circumstances and even health — can influence scores, making it harder to draw clear conclusions about results.

Any external factor is “really out of the school’s and the teacher’s control, but they’re still judged on it,” said Dan Hendey, director of the private State College Friends School. “It’ll still affect them.”

Critics also point out that standardized assessment tests, by their nature, poorly measure creativity, problem-solving and analytical reasoning — important attributes for students in today’s society and educational goals for local school districts.

As a result, local educators say, the state tests should be viewed as one tool among many for evaluating student achievement. Other ways for students to demonstrate understanding could include classroom formative tests, local diagnostic assessment tests, teacher observation, projects such as creating a video, academic portfolios and even community service.

Brian Griffith, superintendent of the Penns Valley Area School District, said he would never accept his teachers using only standardized tests for assessments and relying on the answers “as being the solution to drive their instruction forward.”

“Is it something that would help us look at curriculum and look at resources? Absolutely,” he said. “But is it the only way we should be measuring students? Absolutely not.”

Gregg Paladina, superintendent of the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District, said he thinks PDE officials “do the best they can with what they have” to provide an objective measure of assessing schools, even though the PSSA testing periods can be grueling for students and teachers alike.

“Is it a good system of assessment? No,” he said. “Every year there are some questions that are not (grade) appropriate for the level of students.”

Griffith said PSSA scores can be used by school districts and community residents for comparison purposes, providing a glimpse into how students stack up against statewide peers taking the same assessment.

“But that doesn’t mean that the school district with the lower performing student body has students who are any less or more prepared than students who are performing very highly for college or for success after school,” he said. “And I think that’s what people need to take away from it.”

‘Dialogue with a student’

Local educators also find fault with some of the PSSA procedure.

They note that, under the current system, schools and school districts cannot analyze individual responses and questions as they do with their own assessments.

Griffith uses the hypothetical example of a school district scoring poorly on reading comprehension. Without further breakdown, he said, the result may only tell a partial story.

“It may not have been just a reading comprehension of nonfiction text problem. It may have been a vocabulary problem,” he said.

“It may have been a cultural problem with the understanding of what was in the text. What was the background experience of that student, and how did they relate and interact with the text?”

He assumes the PDE “uses a whole bunch of matrix questions to determine the validity of questions,” but opponents say testing vendors create and evaluate the specific test questions. Because they have a proprietary interest in the tests, which reuse material year to year, they protect the questions.

While school districts could help their students better with more information, the risk of cheating — which happened in recent years in Georgia and Washington, D.C., among other places — means local review of test material is problematic.

“In our own assessments, we know what students missed,” Griffith said. “We can sit down and have a dialogue with a student to determine, really, the nuances of understanding that the student has around that concept, versus simply: You got it wrong or you got it right. That doesn’t tell us what to do as an educator.”

Some critics also wish the state would return PSSA and Keystone results sooner, in time for curriculum planning over the summer for the next school year.

“If we’re going to pay all that money to have testing, let’s have the test contractor say, ‘Hey, we’ll give you the data back by the end of June or the middle of July, so it’s in your hands to make decisions,’ ” Fuller said. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Dumaresq said moving to an online test would speed the scoring, but not all schools are equipped to make the change. Assessment tests could be administered earlier, she said, but the trade-off would be less time for instruction.

Teaching ‘to the test’?

PSSA critics have worried for years that proficiency benchmarks led to “teaching to the test” and the narrowing of curricula.

Now, even with AYP gone in the state, some fear linking PSSA scores to job evaluations and school ratings will increase the temptation.

“It’s a natural inclination of a teacher when it’s got that much importance,” Hendey said.

Local superintendents say that’s not happening in their districts, and vow to keep it that way.

“We don’t teach to the test,” said Cheryl Potteiger, Bellefonte Area School District superintendent. “We teach our curriculum, and that should take care of our test scores, basically.”

Jeff Miles, Bald Eagle Area School District superintendent, said “there’s so much more to educating our children” than PSSA exams and other standardized tests.

“We want them to be productive citizens,” he said. “We want them to be good people. That test, there’s nothing in (the PSSA) that helps you identify those things.”

O’Donnell said state assessments do allow his district to identify “curricular deficiencies within particular programs” and “generate questions about what we’re doing well and where we might have some needs.”

But, he said, “The value of a school district, I think, is measured most effectively when you look at what its graduates become when they grow up.

“What do they contribute to society? What types of careers do they determine for their personal path? And are those careers fulfilling to them? I realize those are big, idealistic concepts, but those are very real.”