State is failing local schools by forcing PSSAs

It’s that time of year: Parents are reminded to make sure their children get plenty of sleep.

Students are urged to do their best so that their school scores don’t suffer, and teachers watch and worry over whether their classes will rise or fall in the hierarchy of state ups and downs.

Schools are busy this month administering the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, more commonly known as the PSSAs.

But while students are sharpening their No. 2 pencils, many are asking if standardized tests, particularly the PSSAs, are nothing more than a waste of time and money.

Local school boards have gone on record complaining about the rigid requirements and lack of consistent scoring information. Last summer, many districts adopted a resolution to the Legislature stating the state testing mandates are counter-productive to education.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association last year studied Pennsylvania standardized testing and concluded standardized tests in Pennsylvania are “too long, too frequent and not developmentally appropriate.”

The study noted: “Districts need an accountability system that gives them the ability to substitute different assessments to meet accountability requirements ... Tests should be implemented, scored and used in ways to reduce student and teacher anxiety and promote learning.”

The study noted that emphasis on test scores can negatively affect a community’s reputation and be a factor in real estate values and tax base.

School officials in financially stressed districts frequently find themselves defending lower scores and pointing out that poverty and home stability — things over which educators have no control — are better predictors of standardized test scores than the curriculum of a district.

School boards also have complained that the state’s handling of the tests leads to confusion.

The state reconfigured the scoring two years ago, rendering a comparison of progress over time impossible.

And then there’s the cost.

Last month, state Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-19th Dist., the Democratic chairman of the Senate Education Committee, described to Digital First Media a Senate Appropriations Committee Budget Hearing that raised serious concerns about the amount of state funding being spent on mandatory standardized testing in Pennsylvania schools.

“We are spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on testing while some school districts don’t even have the resources to properly educate students on the subjects upon which they are being tested,” Dinniman said.

During the past 18 months, the Pennsylvania Department of Education already spent more than $115 million on testing and related contracts, according to Dinniman.

“The total is well over the $100 million we scraped together to increase the Basic Education Subsidy to school districts in the current budget cycle,” Dinniman added.

“For the taxpayer, the bottom line of this bureaucratic structure is the unfunded cost to school districts – more than $1 billion over the last eight years,” Dinniman said.

The movement to reform or eliminate high-stakes standardized testing comes on the heels of the replacement of the federal mandate-heavy No Child Left Behind program with the Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA gives states the right “to diminish the overuse of high-stakes standardized resting to evaluate students, educators and schools,” according to the resolution adopted by local school boards.

The resolution called on the state Legislature to minimize standardized testing and “develop an accountability system that is not ‘one size fits all.’”

While many argue the system of state testing is needed to track and evaluate school performance, the current system doesn’t allow for flexibility within school districts to effectively evaluate how they’re doing.

And, to Dinniman’s point, the millions of dollars paid to outside contractors for testing could be put to better use in educating students instead of evaluating them.

The one-size-fits-all standardized testing is the wrong answer for local schools.

State education officials and legislators should sharpen their pencils and come up with a better way.

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