Testing

In this LNP Archive photo, Conestoga Valley students take benchmark tests for the Keystone Exams.

THE ISSUE

According to the latest standardized test scores released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Lancaster County students, as a whole, are performing above the statewide average. But, compared to the previous school year, students took small steps backward in some subject areas in the PSSAs (for elementary and middle school students) and the Keystone Exams (for high school students). These test results are part of the Future Ready PA Index, the state’s new school accountability tool. But it’s just a tool. With the recent passage and signing of Senate Bill 1095, Pennsylvania students now have multiple options beyond displaying proficiency in the Keystone Exams to fulfill their high school graduation requirements.

It’s good to be able to monitor progress. To have accountability and a measuring stick. It’s also good when we aren’t restricted or defined by those assessment methods.

There was a mixed bag of results for Lancaster County schools in the latest round of standardized test results, as released by the state and detailed by Alex Geli in last Wednesday’s LNP. The 2016-17 school year test results were compared with the 2017-18 results.

Some of the notable comparisons in the PSSA results included:

— In math, 46 percent of Lancaster County students scored proficient or advanced, down from 49 percent.

— In science, 70 percent of students scored proficient or advanced, down from 73 percent.

— In English, local results were upward a tick, from 65 percent to 66 percent.

At the high school level, in the Keystone Exams, there was a drop in literature proficiency from 78 percent to 75 percent, while algebra proficiency (74 percent) and biology proficiency (70 percent) were essentially unchanged.

On a district-by-district basis, Columbia and Hempfield showed year-over-year increases in proficiency in all three subjects, while students at Cocalico, Conestoga Valley, Hempfield, Lampeter-Strasburg, Manheim Township, Penn Manor and Warwick performed at 75 percent proficiency or better in all three Keystone subjects.

That, by the way, is an entirely arbitrary standard we just created — 75 percent proficiency or better in all three Keystone subjects. Which shows why it’s important to use these results as just one kind of measuring stick, and not some sort of draconian cut-off or deciding factor.

For example, our arbitrary standard excluded any mention of Pequea Valley School District, where — by any measure — the Keystone Exams results can be viewed as wildly successful. In Pequea Valley, a stellar 83 percent displayed proficiency in algebra, while the year-over-year proficiency numbers ticked upward for both biology (74 percent) and literature (75 percent).

Pequea Valley Superintendent Erik Orndorff told LNP’s Geli that he attributed Pequea Valley’s success to both “mass customized learning,” which focuses more on each student’s individual needs, and buy-in from the school community. “We work together as a family and that is the key to any team success,” Orndorff said.

Exams not everything

We join the educators and other advocates across Pennsylvania who are pleased that proficiency in the Keystone Exams will no longer be a requirement of graduation. Recently signed Senate Bill 1095, which was co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Ryan Aument of Landisville, provides Pennsylvania students with additional avenues to fulfill high school graduation requirements. (The Keystone Exams graduation requirement for students enrolled in Career Technical Education programs had already been eliminated in 2017.)

Gov. Tom Wolf hailed the bill, stating: “How a student does on high stakes tests is not a useful way to decide if someone is ready to graduate from high school. This new law gives students several options to demonstrate what they’ve learned and that they’re ready to graduate from high school to start a career or continue their education.”

We agree, and would reiterate what the LNP Editorial Board stated in this space in April: “We’re not opposed to standardized testing. We believe it can serve to alert school officials to struggling students — and teachers. But we also think it’s been responsible for dampening creativity in education in recent years. We believe it’s given rise to twisted priorities at some schools. And we believe, strongly, that a student heading for a bright future shouldn’t be waylaid by a single test.”

The Pennsylvania State Education Association noted recently that the state “has made a lot of progress on standardized testing, thanks in large part to the advocacy of PSEA members.” The passage of Senate Bill 1095 is part of a series of Harrisburg reforms, says the PSEA, that have also “reduced time spent on standardized testing by an average of 20 percent in grades three through eight.”

Less time preparing for and taking standardized tests is something we’re sure all students can get behind.

And perhaps that time saved can be spent, instead, with a good book or some nifty experiments in the science lab.