Conestoga Valley students excel in Keystone algebra exam

Conestoga Valley students take Keystone exams in this 2012 file photo.

If it seems like children are taking lots of tests in schools, it’s not your imagination.

In Pennsylvania, students take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), the Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment (PASA), the Keystone Exams, Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

It’s no wonder that Pennsylvania students — and educators — might be feeling a little over-tested.

The PSSA assesses English language arts and mathematics for students in grades 3 through 8, while students in grades 4 and 8 are also administered the science PSSA.

The PSSAs are aligned to the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards in English language arts and mathematics. The PSSAs are intended to provide students, parents, educators and the public with an understanding of student and school performance related to the attainment of proficiency of the academic standards.

Then there are the Keystone Exams, which are high school accountability assessments for federal and state purposes, which eventually will be used as high school graduation requirements.

Current Keystone Exams are given in algebra 1, literature and biology but one day could include many other subjects in order to graduate. The exams are given at the end of the corresponding high school course, usually in May.

A proposed “Keystone Project” would provide students with an alternate pathway to demonstrate proficiency in algebra 1, literature and biology for those students who are unable to show proficiency on the Keystone Exam.

“I wouldn’t have been able to pass algebra and chemistry to save my life,” says one Lancaster parent of a high school senior. “And my son is struggling in literature and composition. He plans to be an engineer.”

In many school districts in Lancaster County, administrators are facing the challenges of the new testing.

“This is the first year that students across the state were evaluated based on the newly adopted PA Common Core Standards,” says Ron Hallett, coordinator of assessment and professional development for the Warwick School District.

As Hallett explains, the state of Pennsylvania changed what was assessed for the 2014-15 school year. The PSSA and Keystone exams were still the tools used, but the exams looked far different than in past years. It wasn’t unexpected, since school districts across the state have known about this for some time.

At Warwick, curriculum leaders have been working with building and district administration, along with support from the local IU13 to modify curricular content and provide a more comprehensive curriculum that reflects the newly defined expectations.

States are also required to come up with plans to help students at schools where test scores are in the lowest 5 percent.

In December, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal education bill replacing the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

Under the new legislation, students will still have to take reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, but the weight those tests are given in evaluating schools and teachers will be left to the states.

In a rare occurrence in Washington, D.C., the Every Student Succeeds Act enjoyed bipartisan support, passing the Senate 82-12 and the House 359-64.

By reducing the No Child Left Behind emphasis on standardized testing, Every Student Succeeds shifts away from making standardized testing the main measure of how effectively teachers teach and students learn.

State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he appreciates the new law’s framework for accountability and its encouragement in improving low-performing schools and shifting away from standardized testing.

“I think states are better able to understand what works in their schools,” Smucker says.

“I think that Every Student Succeeds is a step in the right direction,” says Kenneth Klawitter, acting superintendent for the Columbia Borough School District.

Klawitter served the district as superintendent from 1999 to 2006, then again as acting superintendent in 2013-2014. He stepped into the position again to coordinate the school year activities and assist in the superintendent search this school year.

“I guess you could say I have a soft spot for Columbia. I want to see our kids do well and watch them succeed,” he says.

Klawitter says Columbia has been working closely in sessions with IU13 to develop curriculum for grades K-12 to respond to changes in state testing. In September, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera visited Columbia Borough School District to suggest that he wants to see school profiles provide a “more holistic” picture of school success.

Rivera, formerly superintendent at School District of Lancaster, was working with state legislators to make changes in state assessments even before Every Student Succeeds was signed by Obama.

Damaris Rau, Rivera’s successor at School District of Lancaster, hopes to see other factors, such as the number of students taking high-level classes, taken into account in assessing students.

With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, states will have much more authority over how they evaluate schools. They still will have to report test results for subgroups, but how much the federal government can hold schools accountable for achievement gaps is unclear.

Despite some of the changes, Rau says School District of Lancaster continues to focus on opportunities and performance of all students. State assessments are only a part of the picture. Rau believes that it is important to meet the needs of the whole child.

“Not only their academic growth, but their social-emotional and physical development, and their creativity and voice,” says Rau, adding that she hopes the shared vision will culminate in every child being engaged in their school community and every student being college- and career-ready.

“State testing seems to me to be very much like hurdles on a track,” says Hallet, of Warwick. “For some students, coaching them to hurdle the gate is simply a matter of showing them once, then moving on to ways to improve their time.

“Other students require much more attention to the mechanics of hurdling. Others still require a more unique approach to the instruction of hurdling,” he says. “Unlike track, all of our students must compete. There will be no one sitting on the sidelines here.”