PSSA

THE ISSUE

In its recently released Every Student Succeeds Act Consolidated State Plan, the Pennsylvania Department of Education proposes to reduce the time students spend taking standardized tests. It also aims to lessen the importance of high-stakes tests when assessing schools, as LNP's Alex Geli reported Sunday.The commonwealth’s plan calls for reducing testing time for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests starting in spring 2018. Long-term goals  include increasing the four-year graduation rate, bolstering college and career readiness, and slashing in half the number of students not proficient on PSSAs and Keystone Exams.

Remember learning? American history, civics, art and music, career preparation? They were all squeezed into a corner of the classroom while students and teachers cleared a space for the World Series of standardized tests.

“Standardized testing has a place in education — but not the place,” Manheim Central School District Superintendent Peter Aiken told LNP. “We need to get kids excited about learning. I (have) yet to see a student get excited about PSSA or Keystone testing.”

Well said.

No one seems particularly excited about the annual battery of state exams, not students, teachers, not parents.

It’s long past time for Pennsylvania to de-emphasize high-stakes standardized tests that, while not without some merit, fail to engage students on an individual level. There’s so much more to education than test-taking.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, announced Monday that the changes should shorten the amount of time students spend on the PSSA tests by about 20 percent.

We can make a case for increasing that percentage, but it’s a start.

Susquehanna Township School District Superintendent Tamara Willis told The Associated Press that the current standardized testing system “has resulted in a loss of creativity and innovation within our classrooms.”

Students in Pennsylvania spend more than 1,000 hours from kindergarten to 12th grade preparing for and taking standardized tests, according to the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents teachers across the commonwealth.

That’s simply too much time, unless the goal of education is to produce a generation of proficient test-takers. It’s not.

Teachers lose their connection with students when they’re forced to teach to the test. It’s far more difficult for a teacher to assess an individual student’s strengths and weaknesses in such an environment.

In a 2016 op-ed for LNP, Leslie Gates, an art education professor at Millersville University and a former public school teacher, wrote why she and an increasing number of parents are opting their children out of standardized testing:

“Public districts are paying big bucks to buy pre-packaged curricula, grade book software and preparatory material for standardized tests. The corporations that profit have colonized those in education to the point that teachers and administrators defend standardized testing. That’s despite decades of research identifying the pitfalls of the tests and the overreliance on them in making decisions about things such as high school graduation and teacher performance.”

There is, indeed, a lot of money tied up in standardized testing. In January 2016, the state signed a $210 million contract with a Minnesota-based testing company.

Robert Hollister, superintendent of Eastern Lancaster County and Columbia Borough school districts, told LNP he’d like to “eliminate mass testing altogether.”

In its place, Hollister said he would like to see a “micro-credentialing” system, in which students earn certifications and endorsements for specialized skill areas throughout high school.

It’s an idea worth considering.

In addition to hamstringing teachers, standardized testing puts undue pressure on students, who fear the consequences of underperforming, and it plays too big a role in measuring a school’s overall performance.

And as we wrote back in December, standardized testing in general 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, where students may move frequently — a disruption that makes learning more difficult.

We hope the state can develop more efficent and effective ways to measure student and teacher performance. A step in the right direction is the Department of Education’s development of a new school rating system, called the Future Ready PA Index. As LNP reported, it would replace the School Performance Profile scores, which rated schools largely based on standardized test scores.

The entire proposal is in its public comment period, which will close Aug. 31. We encourage you to make your voices heard. You can fill out an online survey at bit.ly/PAConsolidatedStatePlanSurvey. The proposal will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 18. Initial implementation will begin in the 2017-18 school year, with full rollout by 2018-19.

No one really seems to like the current system. We understand that testing has a role in education. But the fewer, high-stakes standardized tests the better.

Perhaps if we can confine testing to its proper place, teachers and students can actually get back to teaching and learning.

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