It’s the time of year we all recognize. Leaves are starting to turn, school supplies are on the shelves, and kids will soon be writing about what they did on their summer vacation. It’s also a good time to do a check-in on what’s happening in the PA Department of Education (PDE).
There’s a bit of activity going on quietly that deserves more vociferous attention. First up, Governor Wolf made an announcement yesterday that will sound like music to the ears of most educators across the state. PDE plans to reduce the length of time for PSSA testing for students in grades 3 through 8. Starting next spring, the math test will be 48 minutes shorter, the English exam 45 minutes shorter, and the science test 22 minutes shorter. This could eliminate up to two full days worth of testing. Governor Wolf believes these changes will allow teachers to provide students with a "complete education rather than preparing for one exam."
Indivisible member and retired school administrator Debbie Noel, Ed.D. says, “Any legislation that lessens the burden of standardized tests on our students will be welcome by the majority of educators. She pointed to a recent study that revealed, “public school districts in the Midwestern and Eastern United States spend between 19 and 45 days each year preparing students for and administering standardized tests. That means a minimum of 114 and as many as 270 instructional days are sacrificed to testing if students take the exams in grades three through eight as they do in Pennsylvania.”
Noel says, “These numbers cannot begin quantify the level of stress for students, parents, and teachers in our commonwealth. Forever burned in my memory will be the female student struggling to get through a test she knew she would not score Proficient on as the tears rolled down her cheeks and fell to the standardized test below.”
Lawmakers are also looking at changes in two other areas - standardized testing for high school students and teacher evaluations. The specific bill involved is Senate Bill 756, which moved out of committee on June 19th. The bill would do away with the Keystone Exams which are used as part of high school graduation requirements in exchange for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), an aligned vocational test, GED, or military entrance exam. When asked, Debbie Noel explained, “It is my understanding this legislation would swap out the Keystones for the PSAT and SAT and scores would be compared to demonstrate growth. In addition to returning hundreds of hours of instructional time to the teachers there would be a great cost savings to the Commonwealth.” Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester County, who sponsored the bill, said the savings could be 8 to 10 billion dollars. The switch would take effect in the 2018-2019 school year.
Currently the Keystone Exams make up 90% of a school’s School Performance Profile (SPP) score, which measure a school’s effectiveness. PDE itself has stated that the “Keystone Exams are not a good predictor of college and career readiness.” Eliminating the Keystone Exams is a move that has been applauded by many, but some critics argue that replacing one standardized test with a different but equally inappropriate metric is pointless.
But there are two other provisions of SB 756 that are even more troubling. Under SB 756 a teacher could get an unsatisfactory evaluation based on parent and student opinion. Currently under state law 50% of an educator’s performance evaluation is based on principal evaluation and 50% on student performance on the Keystone Exam. If the Keystones are eliminated, the evaluation system must be revamped. If SB 756 passes, the principal evaluation portion would be reduced to 30%, 10% would come from parent and student input, another 10% from peer review, and the remainder would be made up of student scores on the SAT. I don’t think I need to enumerate the flaws inherent in this system.
Furthermore, under SB 756 a teacher could get an unsatisfactory evaluation based on a student’s score on the SAT, a test which the Pennsylvania State Educators Association (PSEA) says is not aligned with Pennsylvania’s curriculum.
No one is arguing that as professionals, teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for their job performance. But in my former life as an ESL teacher in the Reading School District, linking standardized testing with teacher evaluation was always a sticky subject. It was a concern of teachers like myself that our performance would be judged by an unfair standard where students learning English were asked to take the same exams as native English speakers. Exams which expected proficiency in their reading and writing portions, for example, after only a year or two of instruction when scientific research in the field showed proficiency in those areas could take second language learners on average 5 to 7 years seemed unfair to the student and teacher both. Given this experience, what I would argue is that evaluating teachers based on one-size-fits-all testing is bad practice and bad policy.
School may be out for summer, but summer is waning and when report cards are in
SB 756 gets a failing grade.
posted by Amy Levengood
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