PSSA testing

THE ISSUE

Pennsylvania education officials are considering a proposal to revamp the state’s grading system for public schools, placing less emphasis on standardized testing. The new system is called the Future Ready PA Index. While not doing away with standardized testing as a measure of school performance, it would give more weight to other factors, such as reading assessments and Advanced Placement courses offered. The proposal has the support of the state Department of Education, in addition to school administrators and teachers. The state Legislature would have to pass a law to make the new system a reality.

It’s all or nothing, the Super Bowl for every school district in the state — two weeks’ worth of standardized testing to separate winners from losers. And what does the run-up, the intense preparation and pressure ultimately tell us about how our schools are educating our children? We would argue not nearly enough.

Standardized testing might have a place in education. But it has become a behemoth that leaves little space in the classroom for much else — creativity, the measurement of individual skills, the different ways students learn, among other things.

In response to the proposal, which we fully endorse, one superintendent said that “students are so much more than the results of a standardized test.”

Pennsylvania grades its public schools using something called the School Performance Profile. How students perform on annual standardized tests makes up about 90 percent of a school’s performance grade. That grade plays an oversized role in teacher and principal evaluations, and how schools are complying with federal education mandates. But its biggest flaw is that it doesn’t tell us much about the individual student for whom the school exists. The students themselves are the least served by the current system.

The other thing about the existing system is no one really seems to like it; not state education officials, not school administrators, not teachers or parents. When you’re able to reach a consensus among those groups on any issue, you know you’re onto something.

Standardized testing has been shown to be inherently unfair. A teacher in a wealthy school district, for example, whose students have more opportunities, is likely to fare better than a teacher in a poor district.

So, if we’re all in agreement that the days of teaching to the test must end, why are we still doing it? A couple of reasons.

Money. The only entities in favor of overemphasized standardized testing seem to be the testing companies marketing this approach as the panacea for all education woes. As we wrote back in July, the state Education Department signed a $210 million contract in January with the Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp. We hope that deal won’t be a barrier to change.

Second, because of federal mandates, states have lacked the flexibility to reduce the amount of and emphasis on testing.

But, as an increasing number of parents opt their children out of standardized testing, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, will take effect in 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.

“We know that the pendulum has swung too far to the side of standardized testing,” said state Sen. Lloyd Smucker back in July. Smucker was elected to Congress in November where he will represent Pennsylvania’s 16th District.

Smucker was right in July, and he’s right now.

Turning public schools into testing laboratories and students into lab rats isn’t working. It never has. And it’s time for change. The fewer standardized tests the better.

Children and schools cannot be evaluated almost exclusively by ovals filled in with No. 2 pencils. There’s so much more to education than that.

We urge Smucker’s former colleagues in the state Legislature to make full use of the leeway they will be given and adopt this proposal (or some variation of it) to de-emphasize standardized testing as a way of measuring school performance.

The needs of individual students must be the top priority of education.

That seems obvious, but even something so apparent can get lost when so much time is spent blindly filling in the blanks.