Newsworthy

New grades for schools would give less weight to testing

Parents, students and taxpayers in Pennsylvania would get a new look at how their public schools are doing under a proposed revamp of the statewide grading system that gives less weight to standardized testing.

Calling it the Future Ready PA Index, state education officials say the new grading system is meant to tell a more accurate story about Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts. While testing would still play an important role in gauging school performance, officials say, other indicators of student learning and achievement would take on greater importance than they do now.

“Our current system of accountability is far too reliant on standardized tests and not focused enough on skills students need to be successful,” Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said in an interview. The result, he said, is “we’ve created this test-taking culture.”

Rivera unveiled Future Ready PA at the education department’s annual professional-development conference this month.

Some things to know about the proposed new grading system:

WHAT IT WOULD REPLACE

Since 2013, Pennsylvania has graded public schools using a measure called the School Performance Profile. Up to 90 percent of a school’s annual score is based on students’ performance on standardized tests in math, science and English.

The profiles are issued each fall for traditional public schools, brick-and-mortar and cyber charter schools, and career and technology centers serving 1.7 million students. In addition to giving people a snapshot of how the schools are doing academically, the profiles help the state comply with federal education mandates, and play a role in state-mandated teacher and principal evaluations.

School administrators, teachers, parents and students have frequently chafed at the reliance on high-stakes testing in calculating schools’ grades.

“I don’t know anybody who, at this point, defends that as the sole way to evaluate and rate school performance,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “I think we’ve become a lot more sophisticated in understanding the various ways that students learn.”

Ken Cherry, superintendent of the Dover Area School District in York County — which Rivera visited on Thursday — said preparing students to take the state exams sucks up a lot of valuable classroom time.

“I think it reinforces the message that I hear so often from teachers that the creativity, the spark, the excitement we once felt in education has now been pushed to the side because everyone is so worried about what that final number will be.”

MORE THAN TEST SCORES

The education department says it developed the new grading system in consultation with teachers, administrators, parents, students, activists, and leaders in industry and higher education.

Future Ready PA wouldn’t throw out the School Performance Profile indicators altogether, but would weight them differently. It would give districts more credit for offering Advanced Placement and other challenging courses, for example, and for graduating students with industry-recognized credentials.

It would reward career awareness programs offered as early as elementary school, measure English language acquisition among students for whom it is a second language, and allow the use of local reading assessments in grade three and math assessments in grade seven.

And there would be greater emphasis placed on academic growth among all groups of students — from kids who score low on proficiency exams to students who are already high achievers.

Academic growth measures the extent to which students are improving their skills from year to year, no matter their starting point, and is less influenced by demographics and socioeconomic status.

EARLY REACTION

The plan has gotten favorable early reviews from school administrators and teachers.

“We’ve been pushing for a more thorough and valid system for a long time,” said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “Teachers and parents should welcome a system which allows schools to include locally selected assessments and additional snapshots of student progress.”

Gary Cooper, interim superintendent of the Allentown School District, said in a statement that students “are so much more than the results of a standardized test.” He said the district is “pleased to hear about PDE’s proposed recommendations.”

Cherry, the Dover superintendent, said the new grading system is spurring “excitement and also hope that, for once, school districts are not going to be measured on just the outcome of two weeks’ worth of testing.”

WHAT’S NEXT

The Future Ready PA Index is still a ways off. Rivera said it could debut sometime next year “if we get some really good momentum.” The administration hopes to get it enshrined into law.

“The department’s goal is to engage and partner with the Legislature,” said education spokeswoman Casey Smith.

Credit: Associated Press

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