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PSSA scores concern local schools

Some state standardized test scores dropped.

And it’s not just an issue across the state; it’s also at school districts in Centre County that reported a similar dip.

Administrators, like those at Penns Valley Area School District, said they know scores aren’t where they should be.

While the goal is to improve test scores and the teaching methods to assure student proficiency, administrations are hoping the state will help schools get where they need to be.

But there isn’t much confidence in the state from some.

“I’m not happy with the scores,” said Penns Valley Area Assistant Superintendent Sherri Connell. “I think we need to do better, but there needs to be some reasoning with the state to help us get there, and I’m concerned it’s something that’s going to take longer than we’d like to see. … We want our kids to exceed at high levels — I’m not questioning that, but I look at these scores and see a way we can improve, but we need to be realistic in doing so.”

PSSA results were released earlier in the school year and showed a decrease in scores from 2014 to 2015.

The Pennsylvania System of School Assessments measures third- through eighth-grade students. It’s testing that helps the state determine if students are learning what they should be, and tests students’ math and English/language arts skills. Students in fourth and eighth grades are also assessed in science.

Bellefonte Area Assistant Superintendent Michelle Saylor said even though there was a plunge in scores, it’s hard to compare one year to the next.

Last year was the first time the state based the test on Pennsylvania Core Standards — a set of more rigorous standards determined by the state, according to the state Department of Education website.

Administrators said they’re working with teachers, looking at ways to improve and encouraging students and their families not to be discouraged.

“We’ve had concerned parents come to us about their child who may have always been advanced, and now tests at basic or below,” Saylor said. “We tell them not to worry about it. There are so many factors that play into a child’s level of success other than just testing. It’s absolutely not an indicator of a child doing well or not.”

Administration also said working with local politicians, and the Intermediate Units that oversee districts, will help make headway with the state when it comes to getting teachers and students on par with PA Core Standards.

“They can be our greatest resource if we’re forthcoming with concerns or changes we’d like to see,” said State College Area Superintendent Bob O’Donnell.

The test

The 2015 PSSAs were an assessment that reportedly aligned with PA Core. The writing portion of the test was eliminated and incorporated into the reading section that was renamed English Language Arts.

“It’s extremely different and built on a more rigorous set of standards,” Saylor said. “Some instructional strategies may not have been occurring in class.”

Saylor said there was a “really short turnaround” from the time school districts were aware of the PA Core Standards, and the time teachers had to teach to that level.

Connell and O’Donnell added that those standards were not addressed to the districts until after the test was administered last spring.

“The state is working through changes and scrambling to give us direction,” O’Donnell said.

That raises three main concerns for Connell.

“I’m not confident that the exams are measuring PA Core Standards,” she said. “I’m not sure the same group of people determining the standards are writing the questions, or if they even consult with each other. I’m not sure the writers knew the knowledge of what the test should include and what proficiency looked like.”

Connell also said the “cut scores” that determine if a student is advanced, proficient, basic or below basic were not set until after the tests were scored.

“It’s kind of like trying to hit a moving target,” she said. “Teachers were not given expectations upfront.”

Her last concern is the validity of the test.

“The stats frustrate me,” Connell said. “We have eighth graders that about 70 percent are advanced enough to take the algebra Keystones, but 40 percent of them scored basic or below basic on the PSSAs.”

Keystone exams are a set of tests for high schoolers. Students must pass the Keystone algebra test as a graduation requirement. The Keystones also assess literature and biology.

“So they (eighth graders) are proficient enough to graduate, but not proficient enough to pass the PSSAs?” Connell said. “My concern with the state is that I think they made some decisions to do something all within a short time frame and are now finding that they need to backpedal. I think we’re going in too gung-ho.”

Local districts have yet to get information regarding the 2016 PSSAs, which will be administered in April.

Connell said sample questions and test information was something districts were aware of prior to the test changes last year.

Improvement

District administrators said they’re trying to conduct teacher evaluation with little emphasis on standardized test scores.

“We try to tell teachers not to worry about the test, but teach curriculum the way they know how to teach it,” Connell said. “We can be true to our curriculum because we know what good instruction looks like.”

O’Donnell said State College Area focuses on categories that determine the ability of teachers. That includes classroom environment, professionalism, planning and preparation, and instructional practice.

“As far as PSSA goes, we’re looking at where our strengths and weaknesses are,” O’Donnell said. “They’re not enjoyable numbers to look at, but the PSSAs are only one piece of information we use as a school district to look at how we’re doing and how we can get better.”

A lot of professional development will focus on PA Core, O’Donnell said.

The Bellefonte Area School District is working to realign skills students need to be successful beyond Bellefonte.

“We need to maintain a balance so we can focus on the child from a holistic perspective and provide a well-balanced foundation from which they can grow,” Saylor said.

Bald Eagle Area also reported a drop in PSSA scores, but according to district spokeswoman Rose Hoover, the bulk of the scores were better than state averages.

“BEA has already put several programs in place that will improve our scores,” she said in an emailed statement.

More comprehensive information was unavailable.

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