In a special report released last week, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the commonwealth’s taxpayers are unnecessarily spending millions of dollars every year on the Keystone Exams, which have not been required since 2015, when the federal No Child Left Behind Law was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act. “Pennsylvania should aggressively explore using a nationally recognized test that can open new doors for students rather than continuing to spend money on an exam that is no longer required,” the auditor general said. “For less than what Pennsylvania spends on the Keystone Exams, it could instead pick up the tab for every high school student to take the PSAT or SAT.” He suggested the ACT as another option.
DePasquale has been an effective and energetic auditor general, rooting out wasteful spending in state-funded entities — including school districts — across the commonwealth.
But he’s not an educator. Educators — not politicians — should figure out what secondary-level standardized test is employed in Pennsylvania.
DePasquale is absolutely right, though, to call for transparency from the Pennsylvania Department of Education regarding its contracts with Data Recognition Corp., the Minnesota-based company that developed, administers and scores the Keystone Exam.
The Keystone Exam has been something of a boondoggle.
Originally, the exam was intended by lawmakers as a graduation requirement — the thinking being that students should prove they had mastered certain skills before getting their diplomas.
But educators including Solanco Superintendent Brian Bliss pointed out that the graduation requirement was a logistical nightmare for students trying to complete career and technical training. And some students simply don’t fare well on standardized tests.
So the graduation requirement first was delayed and then scrapped entirely by lawmakers, who approved alternative measures of graduation readiness — a move we welcomed.
Nevertheless, as DePasquale’s report points out, the state education department continues to pay Data Recognition Corp. tens of millions of dollars to administer Keystone Exams.
“Between 2015 and 2021, Pennsylvania will have spent nearly $100 million on the Keystone Exams” and associated pre-testing tools, the report states.
That math makes no sense to us.
Why pay such an exorbitant sum to a company for a state-specific test that’s no longer required?
We’ve long argued against the disproportionate place that standardized testing has come to occupy in public education. In our view, and that of many parents, the imperative to teach to the test had squeezed out subjects such as music, art and history.
Now, it may be time to replace the Keystone Exam. But probably not, as DePasquale suggested, with the SAT or ACT, standardized tests that measure students’ aptitude for college.
The auditor general’s report says that at least 12 other states now use the SAT or ACT to meet the federal requirement of administering some secondary school exam.
“Research has shown that having all students take the SAT or ACT increases the rate at which students attend post-secondary education of some kind, particularly lower-income students who might not otherwise realize they could fare well in college,” the report maintains.
That may be true. But even colleges are moving away from the SAT and the ACT.
As the digital media company Inside Higher Ed reported in June, there’s been a surge in recent months “in the number of colleges dropping requirements that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores.” This trend is born out of the recognition that a student’s potential cannot always be captured in a standardized test. And that a student’s future shouldn’t be waylaid by his or her performance on a single, one-size-fits-all exam.
Which is not to say that standardized testing should be eliminated completely. As we wrote in April 2018, “We believe it can serve to alert school officials to struggling students — and teachers.”
Replacing the Keystone Exam with the SAT — even at an estimated saving of at least $1 million a year — strikes us as a bad idea, though we’d defer to educators on this.
Bob Hollister, superintendent of the Eastern Lancaster County School District, said he agrees with DePasquale “that the Keystone Exams need replacing and that there is likely a more cost-efficient state testing system to be found.”
But “requiring all students to take a test specifically designed as a predictor of college success makes no educational sense whatsoever,” he added.
Hollister likened it to a future nurse taking an entrance exam for a welding program.
Penn Manor Superintendent Mike Leichliter said switching tests could be destructive to classroom instruction already geared toward the Keystones.
“Our schools, students and teachers need a reliable statewide exam that will stand the test of time and will not be subject to a change in the political climate of the moment,” Leichliter said.
Bliss expressed the hope that “we will see increased stability regarding testing and graduation requirements moving forward.”
The Keystone Exam has been anything but stable. It went from being a proposed graduation requirement to a delayed graduation requirement to one option among graduation requirements. Whole classes of students were caught up in the mess, as lawmakers tried to figure it out.
The task of what should replace it — if anything should — now must be left to educators, not politicians, DePasquale included.
And at least one politician agrees: State Sen. Ryan Aument, of Mount Joy, tweeted last week that Leichliter, Hollister and Bliss “are exactly right. Elected leaders in Harrisburg would do well to listen to them.”
For this week’s #TeacherTuesday, we are highlighting Nicole Bartolacci from Jamison Elementary School. She found a fun way for her students to learn about poetry and share with their schoolmates. Check out those awesome poet-tees! 😄
Know a teacher who should be featured for #TeacherTuesday? Let us know!
We’re so proud of the Lower Merion School District’s chapter of buildOn that won the Student Leader Award in PSEA’s Celebrating Excellence Awards program this year. The chapter is part of a worldwide movement to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service and education.
Last year, more than 300 community members from Lower Merion’s chapter volunteered a total of 12,474 hours. They worked on more than 100 projects in their community, including tutoring at Bethel Academy, delivering food to families in need, beautifying local parks, feeding the homeless, and much more. Since the program began, buildOn students and staff have also raised $750,000 to construct 10 schools and provide adult literacy programs in Haiti, Nepal, Nicaragua and Malawi.
Congrats to Lise Marlowe, a sixth-grade teacher at Elkins Park School in the Cheltenham School District, and member of the Cheltenham Education Association, for winning PSEA’s Celebrating Excellence Award this year in the category of Educational Leader. She has strived to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive for her students, community, and temple.
Lise brings survivors into her classroom to talk to her students, hires Temple University students to film their stories, and has written short books about several of them. Twenty years ago, she set out to teach her students about the enormity of the lives lost in the Holocaust. She asked students how long it would take to draw 6 million stick figures to represent the people killed in the Holocaust. Some thought it would take a few weeks or months. Two decades later, her students have drawn about 1.3 million stick figures, representing only the children under age eight who were killed.
With the number of Holocaust survivors dwindling, Lise tells her students that after they hear a survivor’s story, it is now their story to tell others.
The North Penn School District was honored once again with the “Best Communities for Music Education” designation from the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation for its outstanding commitment to music education. North Penn joins 623 districts across the country in receiving the prestigious award in 2019.
In cooperation with researchers at the Music Research Institute at the University of Kansas, and based on survey results, each year the NAMM Foundation selects school districts to be recognized as being among the Best Communities for Music.
Now in its 20th year, the awards program recognizes outstanding efforts by teachers, administrators, parents, students and community leaders who have made music education part of the curriculum. Designations are made to districts and schools that demonstrate an exceptionally high commitment and access to music education.
This week’s #TeacherTuesday highlights Karen Lyon, a retired teacher from Bristol Township who is still very active in her community. She serves on the board of Discovery Service Projects, an organization that helps Central American countries that have been affected by natural disasters rebuild schools, homes and community buildings. This group allows her to continue to engage students in her community with volunteer work.
“Every day I get to see students engaged and excited to use the skills they have learned to build careers after graduation. I am inspired by the graduates that come back to show what they have done and the families they have built.”
If you know a teacher who deserves to be recognized on #TeacherTuesday, let us know!
This week’s #TeacherTuesday highlights Gary Felmey, an electrical tech teacher at Eastern Center for Arts and Technology and a member of the Eastern Montgomery County Educators Association. “Every day I get to see students engaged and excited to use the skills they have learned to build careers after graduation. I am inspired by the graduates that come back to show what they have done and the families they have built.” If you know a teacher who deserves to be recognized on #TeacherTuesday, let us know!
Many of us in education have deep misgivings about the role standardized tests play in our schools. As a principal, I’ve had a front-row seat to incidents that illustrate why we should be seriously concerned. Let me tell you about one of them.
A few years ago, an assistant superintendent approached me about the performance of my kindergarten teachers. He had looked at the school’s scores from a commonly used standardized test and had identified an underperforming kindergarten teacher.
He pointed out that in one of my four kindergarten classes, the student scores were noticeably lower, while in another, the students were outperforming the other three classes. He recommended that I have the teacher whose class had scored much lower work directly with the teacher who seemed to know how to get higher scores from her students.
Seems reasonable, right? But here was the problem: The “underperforming” kindergarten teacher and the “high-performing” teacher were one and the same person.
I had just two kindergarten teachers. They each taught one morning and one afternoon class.
The idea that I should have the “high performing” teacher coach her lower-performing colleague was suddenly very concerning to me, not to mention impossible. It was clear to me that I couldn’t use standardized tests to distinguish high-performing from low-performing teachers. And this incident fed the doubts that I already harbored about using those same tests—which are meant to be “scientific”—to measure student learning.
Dozens of Variables
I am married to a scientist. He runs tests on plant pathology, analyzes the results, draws conclusions, and uses the results to develop solutions to the problems he studies. I am in awe of the tidiness of the whole process.
I, on the other hand, am an educator. At best, every child is an experiment of one. We test the children’s learning with admittedly limited instruments—standardized tests—that were never designed to be used as a standalone analysis. A lot of classroom time is dedicated to preparing for these tests and giving them. Results are affected by dozens of variables that we can’t control: illness, hunger, sleep deprivation, unfamiliar forms of a test, limited command of English.
While my husband carefully chooses which plants and which growing conditions to use in his studies to get more accurate and replicable results, I cannot even begin to predict which variables have the most impact on any individual student when she takes a standardized test on any given day.
However, in our best attempt to mimic scientific experiments in education, we insist on measuring the success of a learning intervention by students’ standardized test results. These are the very same tests that have let us down by failing to accurately capture what a student knows and can do.
Many people say that we use these tests because we have no better way to measure learning. That’s not really a good answer, much less a reason to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of an intervention, or worse, about the performance of a teacher.
Occasionally I’ll hear a story about a student whose abilities teachers vastly underestimated, and then a test at school finally revealed the level of his or her true capability. I do not doubt those stories.
But my own experience of watching tests and students for many years is that standardized test results underestimate large numbers of students as learners, especially those who belong to minority groups. Most often, it’s the teacher—not the standardized test—who will recognize a student’s true abilities and understand that the student simply is unable to demonstrate on the test what she knows and can do.
Teachers—good teachers, who are with students day after day through all the variables of learning—are far more likely to know not only what a student can do but also how to increase his learning. If we focused on that and worked to build our strength as identifiers and promoters of children’s learning, we could have a real impact.
I fear that the charade of saying testing can inform instruction has diverted us from exploring what can really make a difference in a child’s learning. And the precious little time we have to bring children as far as possible, to nourish their potential, to have them become capable of successfully navigating whatever world they will live in with confidence as a lifelong learner, is simply not a gift to squander. As sociologist William Bruce Cameron wrote, “not everything that can be counted counts.”
Margaret Pastor is the principal of Stedwick Elementary School in Maryland. She has more than 35 years of experience in education, and is the co-author of One School’s Journey, about teaching through authentic projects.
This week’s #TeacherTuesday shines the spotlight on Will Melvin, an English teacher at Central Bucks High School South. Will is a candidate for PA Teacher of the year and a member of the Central Bucks Education Association. Will was inspired to teach by his freshman English teacher’s captivating passion and energy in the classroom. Now he brings that into his own classroom, making sure his lessons are “relevant in the 21st century to a new group of adolescents.”
If there’s a teacher you think deserves to be highlighted, let us know in the comments.
Over the past 30 years, the cost of living has risen, college tuition has soared, and the education profession has changed dramatically. Yet Pennsylvania’s minimum teacher salary has remained on the books at $18,500 per year, unchanged in the school code since 1989. Now there is a legislative proposal, recommended and supported by Gov. Tom Wolf, to raise the minimum salary across the state to $45,000.
Why is this so important? There was a time when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania issued more than 14,000 licenses to new teachers each year. In the last few years, that number has dropped to fewer than 5,000. Pennsylvania, like other states around the country , is experiencing a chronic shortage of certified teachers, not only in our urban areas, but here in Bucks and Montgomery Counties as well. What’s more, the problem is most acute in the areas of math and science, which are critical to a 21st century education, and special education, where the number of students identified and needing services has increased dramatically over the past 30 years.
Exacerbating the situation is the fact that up to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years. Experts estimate that the teacher attrition rate is about 8 percent annually, with higher rates in urban districts. We need to find ways to not only recruit a diverse educator workforce, but to retain them in our classrooms across the state.
The Council for the Advancement of Public Schools (CAPS) believes that increasing the minimum teacher salary can address this growing teacher shortage by offering better compensation. Great schools depend upon great teachers, and we can’t attract the next generation of educators if our best and brightest students aren’t going into the profession. If we truly value those people who are responsible for enlightening the next generation, we need to ensure that their starting salary is commensurate with other professionals in the state who have equivalent levels of education.
Who would be impacted by this new minimum? There are 288 school districts in Pennsylvania where a total of 5,152 experienced educators earn less than $45,000. Of these educators, 76 percent are women. Even worse, there are 1,130 education professionals who make less than $40,000 per year. Half of these teachers have more than three years of experience, 20 percent have more than six years of experience, and 26 percent have master’s degrees. And a few of them are right here in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
The governor’s proposed minimum salary increase would not impact local school district budgets. It would only require an increase of one-quarter of 1 percent (. 0025%) in the state’s basic education funding line item. This translates to less than half a penny on the dollar. It’s the right thing to do for the people who educate our children. It’s time to give these professionals the respect they deserve.
If you agree that well-educated professionals shouldn’t struggle to make ends meet, please contact your legislators to express your support today.
Alan M. Malachowski is a music teacher in the North Penn School District and a member of the Council for the Advancement of Public Schools (CAPS).