PSSA file photo

Warwick students take Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams in this 2010 file photo.

The Issue

In today’s Perspective section, we examine the high-stakes testing in public schools that was ushered in by President George W. Bush’s version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — No Child Left Behind, which sought to increase accountability in public schools. Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary, has worked to refine NCLB, but he’s also an advocate of high-stakes testing. Here, students in grades 3-8 take Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. High school students now take Keystone Exams; passing the Keystone Exams will be a graduation requirement beginning with the Class of 2017. Last week, the Pennsylvania House Education Committee heard testimony relating to the Keystone Exams. In Washington, the debate over the reauthorization of NCLB is heating up.

We are in favor of accountability; who isn’t?

We need to be able to ensure that students are learning, teachers are teaching, school districts are spending taxpayers’ money wisely. That takes data. That requires testing.

No Child Left Behind’s primary goal was in its name: Make sure every child, even those in traditionally disadvantaged and overlooked groups, receives an excellent education.

But somewhere along the line, testing became the end, not the means.

As Lancaster resident Wynter Bledsoe writes today, excessive standardized testing has “killed the beauty of learning,” and left some children overly anxious and others indifferent to the outcome of the tests.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has its own reservations about the Keystone Exams public high school students take.

The PSBA is among the supporters of House Bill 168, which would remove Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement.

A proposed resolution that’s been referred to the state Senate Education Commission seeks a cost analysis of Pennsylvania’s standardized tests.

We think reviews of the PSSAs and Keystones should consider the more important toll the tests are taking on the quality of education.

Robert Hollister, superintendent of the Eastern Lancaster County School District, says that schools now are being evaluated on only a narrow portion of what they actually teach.

And that creates an imbalance, as the assessments — covering a limited area of language arts, a limited area of mathematics, a limited area of science (biology, not physical science in the Keystones, for instance) — drive the focus, the dollars, the classroom hours and the attention to those narrow areas.

Educators are trying to produce, as Hollister says, “global-ready graduates,” but the state and federal testing requirements are working against that aim.

Standardized tests do not encourage any of the essential skills young people are going to need to thrive in an ever smaller world: creativity, critical thinking, leadership skills,  debating skills, an ability to negotiate the dynamics of working in a group, the ability to understand people from different cultures.

These are all skills that are being developed by the bright kids who sign up for, say, a Model United Nations club.  But a student shouldn’t have to be in Model UN to have an opportunity to develop those skills.

Those skills, Hollister and other educators believe, should be nurtured in the classroom, too.  He’d like to see teams of students from different countries around the world working on a social studies or science project, sharing points of view and experiences, coming together to find a solution to a global problem.

It’s a great idea — and completely out of the realm of possibility for teachers who need to spend hours prepping students for standardized tests.

Hollister’s district is piloting a global competency assessment.

But it’s not easy for teachers to go beyond teaching to the high-stakes tests on which their schools’ ratings and their professional evaluations depend.

Hollister says he reminds his teachers that the subjects covered by the Keystones and PSSAs are just “first base. We have to hit first base. ... However, let’s not drive the system just to first base. We’ve got to hit a home run.”

“It’s about balance,” Hollister says.

We agree: Policymakers need to restore balance to education. And lawmakers need to free up educators so their students can explore and understand the world that lies beyond Keystone exams and PSSAs.

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