PSSA

In this file photo from 2010, students takes a Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exam.

THE ISSUE

As more parents opt their children out of standardized testing, and a new federal education law gets set to kick in, state officials are reviewing the tests. The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, will take effect next July. It replaces No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that ushered in an era of high-stakes standardized testing in public schools. Under the new law, states will have more flexibility in the amount of testing time and in how the results are used; tests will continue to be given in the same subjects and grade levels. State lawmakers have been holding joint hearings on what this should mean for Pennsylvania.

Here’s the very good news for Pennsylvania parents and their children in public schools: The emphasis on teaching to the test appears to be nearing its end.

“We know that the pendulum has swung too far to the side of standardized testing,” said state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-West Lampeter Township, and chairman of the state Senate Education Committee. “The ESSA law gives us the opportunity to recalibrate that.”

Hallelujah.

Smucker says he wants to see “fewer tests but better tests.”

So do we.

So much creativity, so much time for other subjects, has been squeezed out of public education by seemingly endless standardized tests and their accompanying practice tests.

Kids now know all too well how to fill in the tiny bubbles on a testing form. Now it’s time to begin filling in the blanks in their education — gaps created by the emphasis on standardized testing.

This isn’t going to be easy. As LNP reported last Sunday, the standardized tests are used to assess school and teacher performance. And for a reason.

As Brenda Becker, former superintendent of Hempfield School District, told LNP in 2009,  accountability had been missing for too long in public education before No Child Left Behind called for tangible measures of student success.

But standardized testing eventually became the be-all and end-all as schools poured vast resources — including instructional time  — into ensuring that students scored high enough to reflect well on their schools.

Parents began opting their kids out of the testing not because their special snowflakes didn’t want to take tests. Tests are necessary in gauging whether students are grasping the material being taught.

But standardized testing results aren’t processed quickly enough to help a teacher identify gaps in an individual student’s learning.

And as a measure of teaching and school performance, standardized testing has proven to be unfair. A teacher of honors English is likely to fare better than a teacher of students with learning disabilities. And a teacher in a wealthy school district, whose students’ lives are filled with learning opportunities from birth, is likely to fare better than a teacher in a poor district whose students had far fewer such opportunities.

The trick now will be to maintain teacher and school accountability — and to measure student performance in a way that helps each student —without burying kids under a blizzard of standardized tests.

Jerry Egan, assistant superintendent for elementary education at the Penn Manor School District, proposes cutting the tests in half, which seems to be a reasonable start.

State Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Landisville, pointed out in last week’s Sunday LNP that schools need to examine their own testing culture. Are they spending too much time on practice tests?

It’s a fair question, and one school administrators ought to ask themselves.

But the pressure educators feel to drive up test scores won’t be eased unless the state Education Department delivers a more balanced performance profile (a revised version is expected to be unveiled in late fall).

Matthew Stem, the Pennsylvania deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education, said the state Department of Education is “definitely looking to move away from a single-point-in-time assessment that makes up the overwhelming weight of the School Performance Profile.”

We’re glad to hear it. And we hope lawmakers are open to approving changes that make sense.

Even as we worry about the well-rounded education students missed out on because of the emphasis on standardized testing, we know this: Turning schools into testing laboratories was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.

And the only people who seemed to profit from it were the executives of testing companies.

Which brings us to this concern: The state Education Department signed a new $210 million contract in January with the Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp.

Stem said the agreement won’t be a barrier to making changes.

Let’s hope this is the case, and that everyone — state education officials, lawmakers and educators — move forward knowing that the educational needs of our kids must be paramount.

Flexibility regarding standardized testing is rightly being given to the states. Let’s make the most of this opportunity in Pennsylvania.