Reprinted with permission

By Christen Smith, Staff Reporter, Capitolwire

HARRISBURG (July 17) — An analysis of preliminary PSSA results from the 2014-15 school year released Tuesday reignited debate surrounding the state's other standardized test — the Keystones— and whether it should remain a graduation requirement.

Newsworks reports students scoring “basic” or “below basic” on the PSSAs increased 9.4 percent in reading and 35.4 percent in math, with nearly half of all seventh and eighth graders dropping an entire proficiency level in math in just one year.

The news may be disappointing, but not surprising to the state Department of Education.

“The PA Core Standards were adopted by the State Board of Education in autumn of 2013. PDE understands that transitioning to these new, more rigorous standards takes time, curriculum development and resources,” said Nicole Reigelman, department spokeswoman. “Over the next several years, PDE anticipates student performance will grow steadily as resources return to the classroom, and students and teachers become more familiar with the PA Core.”

The state Board of Education also voted earlier this month to raise the bar for what constitutes an “advanced,” “proficient,” “basic” or “below basic” score in order to match the “rigor” of the new standards.

It's an explanation, however, that doesn't sit well with many — including one lawmaker devoted to redefining the role of standardized testing in Pennsylvania.

Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, co-sponsored legislation, Senate Bill 880, that would delay the Keystone graduation requirement for two years while lawmakers examined the role standardized tests should play. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate last month.

Similar measures have cropped in the House Education Committee during the last year, but have gone nowhere.

“The only way they are going to even out is if adequate funding is provided to the schools and to teacher professional development,” Dinniman said Friday. “I don't see the necessary resources coming forward, at least not this coming budget year, to accomplish the goal.”

Although the Keystone scores have yet to be released, it, too, is the first year every question on the tests will align with the new standards — and juniors who took them in May will be the first students required to pass the exams before graduating in 2017.

Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, anticipates the Keystone scores will drop, too, but doesn't fault the department's explanation.

“It will likely take a little time for schools to adjust to the new, more rigorous cut scores and make any necessary curriculum changes,” he said. “We encourage the state Department of Education to educate the public on the reason for any drop in scores that the they may see this fall as a result of the bar being raised. PSBA has been pushing not only for a delay in graduation requirements but to get rid of them completely. This certainly strengthens the argument to at least delay the graduation requirements.”

“There was already a strong case for eliminating the Keystone Exams as a high school graduation requirement,” said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union. “The bigger issue is that the ongoing obsession with standardized tests is harmful to teaching and learning.”

The state spent $58 million last year to implement the PSSAs and the Keystones, according to state budget documents. It's money Dinniman says would be better spent on resources necessary for students to past the tests, such as updated text books and appropriately trained staff.

“There are some very serious questions about the role of standardized tests period,” he said. “Many of us who went to school years ago used to take what were called the Iowa tests. They took two or three days and there was not all this test preparation. Testing has taken on a whole new realm now. It's not being simply used as a diagnostic tool. We are using it to judge achievement.”

A significant portion — 80 percent, Dinniman says — of a building's School Performance Profile score is based on standardized tests results. The results also factor into a teacher's evaluation score — an idea PSEA deems unfair and unrepresentative of a teacher's effectiveness.

“There are many schools who simply do not have the curriculum tools and do not have the time to do professional development with their staff to teach the new curriculum,” Dinniman said. “Time is neutral, whether time will bring about higher test scores depends on what each school district and the commonwealth does.”

He added: “It's time to take a breather and figure out what the role of these tests are supposed to be so that we don't constantly change and so that we make good decisions for both the students and schools of the commonwealth.”

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