Under new state plan, students will see less time and emphasis on PSSAs


Pennsylvania wants to reduce the time students spend taking standardized tests and lessen the importance of the exams in rating the performance of schools, according to state plan released Wednesday to comply with the federal law signed by President Obama in 2015.

For years, parents and educators have railed that the federal law No Child Left Behind law created a culture in which teachers are forced to teach to a test and young children are overwhelmed by the high-stakes exams.

With No Child Left Behind now being replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, Pennsylvania is listening to those concerns.

It wants to reduce the time students spend taking standardized tests and lessen the importance of the exams in rating the performance of schools, according to state plan released Wednesday to comply with the federal law signed by President Barack Obama in 2015.

The state’s ESSA plan also includes long-term goals of raising the graduation rate, emphasizing career awareness in elementary school and reducing chronic absenteeism.

Under the plan, Pennsylvania students in third to eighth grade would still take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests and high school students would still take the Keystone exams in algebra, biology and English.

But under ESSA, states have more control over how and when students are tested as well as how much time those tests take up in the school year.

Pennsylvania would reduce the testing time for the PSSAs in spring 2018. English would have three sections instead of four, and math would go down from three to two.

No Child Left Behind, which was adopted in 2001, set a goal of having every student passing mandated tests by 2014. It failed in its objective.

But in pushing the goal, parents and educators said the law created an atmosphere in which young children often felt anxious taking the standardized tests. With the adoption of the Pennsylvania Core Standards, the state’s version of Common Core, the tests have been tougher and scores significantly dropped.

Since 2013, the state’s system of ranking schools, the School Performance Profile, has largely been based on student test scores with an overall school score of 70 serving as a passing grade for a school.

The state plans to replace the SPP system in fall 2018 with the Future Ready PA Index, which would take other factors, such as participation in Advanced Placement classes and academic growth, into consideration when determining a school’s success.

Casey Smith, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the shift to less emphasis on standardized testing is a direct result of parents and educators letting the state know how stressful the tests are.

Local educators see reducing the time students spend on the PSSAs as a good move.

“The further we can get away from standardized testing, in my opinion, the better off,” Parkland Superintendent Richard Sniscak said.

Bethlehem Area Superintendent Joseph Roy echoed those thoughts.

The state’s “plan is a significant step in the right direction, particularly with the reduction in time spent on testing, a focus on chronic student absenteeism, and support for schools in distressed communities rather than the punitive measures of [No Child Left Behind],” Roy said in an email.

Allentown teachers union President Debbie Tretter welcomed that other factors, such as chronic absenteeism, would be used to rate the performance of a school.

In the Allentown School District, where almost 90 percent of students are considered low-income, standardized test scores have been low compared with other Lehigh Valley school districts.

“We’re not opposed to accountability,” Tretter said. “But there’s so many factors that go into accountability. Our demographics are definitely not the same as suburban districts’ demographics. All of that affects the test scores.”

Longer-term goals of the state’s ESSA plan include raising the graduation rate from 85 percent to 92 percent by 2029-30 and increasing the number of students who score proficient from 62 percent in 2015 to 81 percent in 2030 in English and from 43 percent in math in 2015 to 72 percent in 2030.

In the Lehigh Valley, Allentown’s Dieruff and Allen High, and Bethlehem’s Liberty High, are below the 85 percent graduation mark.

Other goals include better recruiting and retaining teachers to address concerns about teacher shortages, promoting more STEM programs and increasing college and career counseling. The state’s plan also includes having more than half of its English language learners performing proficient on math and English by 2030.

Several states have already drafted ESSA plans. Pennsylvania’s was drafted after the state assembled four work groups comprised of teachers, school officials from traditional and charter schools, civil rights leaders and bipartisan policy makers. The state Department of Education also held town halls, attended conferences and commissioned a study.

With the plan written, the state will accept public comments through Aug. 31. It will submit the plan to the U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 18, according to a news release.

Initial implementation of the plan will begin in the 2017-18 school year, with full rollout planned for 2018-19.

Credit: The Morning Call