Education

Statewide decrease in PSSA scores spurs extra training for teachers

Bald Eagle Area kindergarten through fifth grade teachers at Howard and Wingate elementary schools attend a PSSA training session on Tuesday.
Bald Eagle Area kindergarten through fifth grade teachers at Howard and Wingate elementary schools attend a PSSA training session on Tuesday. adrey@centredaily.com

Area teachers are on the forefront of finding enhanced ways to teach — and help students succeed — on the PSSAs in April.

A portion of the test will make up for about a fifth of the score for the first time this year.

Teachers are undergoing training on ways to help students get a better understanding of the section called Text Dependent Analysis — a literacy aspect that encourages students to answer questions with more evidence and interpretation of a passage.

The extra training comes on the heels of a commonwealthwide decrease in test scores reported last year.

And local administrators said it’s only a matter of time for a turnaround in state standardized test scores that could come with a more transparent state Department of Education, and a realistic approach to raising the bar.

This year’s Pennsylvania System of School Assessments might be the turning point.

It’s a step in the right direction. You can only work on so many things at once, but I think it’s the path we were hoping to take.

Tracy Boone, Bald Eagle Area School District director of curriculum and instruction

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Tracy Boone, Bald Eagle Area School District director of curriculum and instruction. “You can only work on so many things at once, but I think it’s the path we were hoping to take.”

The test

This year, a section called Text Dependent Analysis will count for 19 percent of a student’s total test score.

It was included on last year’s assessment but wasn’t included in the grade.

“Last year was a trial run, which is why it didn’t count,” Boone said. “It allowed the state to take in feedback, and it happens with all tests. All PSSAs have field items to determine if it will be put on the test or not, for credit.”

Boone said the state reframed open responses to all subject matters that require strategic thinking by providing evidence and explanation.

Training rolled out earlier in the school year that allowed district teachers to become certified trainers through the Intermediate Units that oversee their schools.

At Bald Eagle Area, the teacher leaders include Amber Buchanan, Ann Van Cise, Jennifer Gilbert and Rhonda Ternent.

They’re holding a number of district training sessions with teaching staff on Tuesdays leading up to the assessments in April.

PSSA test dates: April 11-15, English/Language Arts April 18-22, Math April 25-29, Science May 2-6, Make-up test

“What I did was attend three trainings at the IU and went over close reading and Text Dependent Analysis strategies,” Buchanan said. “What it’s looking for are more in-depth answers than an open response. … What we do in our sessions are train staff to focus on close reading and understanding with students.”

Buchanan, a fifth-grade teacher at Howard Elementary School, said teachers go through a series of reading exercises with students that help them understand the text.

The first time, students are asked to read the text sample to get a general idea of what it’s about.

They’re then instructed to read it a second time and determine the purpose of the passage.

On the third read-through, students are asked to think about why the author chose specific words or phrases, and what it means.

Curriculum

Buchanan said the tiered reading lessons are an approach that’s already embedded in class curriculum.

Last school year, the district implemented the Reading Wonders program that combined reading with writing, instead of teaching the two separately.

The program, through McGraw-Hill, was designed for Common Core state standards through research-based instruction.

The district spent about a year studying testing trends from a five-year period that showed primary school students were not succeeding in the subjects prior to the change, said Jim Orichosky, Wingate Elementary School principal and BEA director of elementary education.

Administration judged improvement though Scholastic Reading Inventory that focused on data from student test scores.

We’re already doing a lot of this, but we’re just asking them to make sure they go over the information in a way students can understand, and really emphasize this approach so it overlaps with students come test time.

Amber Buchanan, Howard Elementary School fifth-grade teacher

“We’re already doing a lot of this, but we’re just asking them to make sure they go over the information in a way students can understand, and really emphasize this approach so it overlaps with students come test time,” Buchanan said.

But this isn’t just for English and language arts-based subjects.

“We also incorporate social studies, math and science, because there are reading in those subjects,” Buchanan said. “In order to answer the question, you have to understand what you’re reading.”

As for how some administrators see the future of tests, Bellefonte Area Assistant Superintendent Michelle Saylor said it “remains to be seen.”

“(We) would like to think we have a baseline, and last year was everyone’s baseline,” she said. “We look at how we move from that and work with variables thrown at us.”

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo

Administrators hope to improve 2015 results

PSSA scores reported in the fall showed a statewide decrease from 2014 to 2015 that administrators partially blamed on Pennsylvania Common Core — a more rigorous set of standards determined by the state.

Last school year was the first time the commonwealth based the test on PA Common Core Standards.

Some local school administrators said it was unrealistic expectations that left students with poor grades and teachers unsure of what those specific standards were.

“The state is working though changes and scrambling to give us direction,” State College Area School District Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said in October.

Those standards were not addressed to the districts until after the test was administered last spring, Penns Valley Area School District Assistant Superintendent Sherri Connell said.

The PSSA tests measure third- through eighth-grade students that help the state determine if students are learning what they should be. It tests students’ math and English/language arts skills. Fourth- and eighth- grade students are also assessed in science.

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.

This year, local administrators said the state is being a little more open with what standards to expect, though there is still work to be made.

“We’re getting there,” Bellefonte Area School District Assistant Superintendent Michelle Saylor said. “I think it’s just a matter of time. We didn’t have any insight to math, but knew what to expect for ELA, and with many districts it helps teachers understand new portions of the test.”

By Britney Milazzo

PSSA test dates:

April 11-15, English/Language Arts

April 18-22, Math

April 25-29, Science

May 2-6, Make-up test

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