Lancer Letter – Now Springs Forth The Testing

Submitted by Richard Scaletta, GM School District

It’s April and spring has sprung! You can see flowers and trees budding. You can smell the fragrance of tulips in bloom. You can hear the birds singing and the scratching of #2 lead filling in hundreds of bubble sheets.

Scratch of lead? Bubble sheets? Yes! April means that students in grades 3-8 across Pennsylvania take the state assessment known as the PSSA. In the first two weeks of the month, students are tested in math and English language. At the end of the month, they will take tests in science.

This annual ritual is designed to satisfy the federal gods of accountability by subjecting students to hours of testing. Most people have come to criticize this testing for a number of reasons: loss of instructional time, undue stress on students (and teachers), millions and millions of dollars spent on the testing, as well as a crazy focus on “test security.” Then when the test results are calculated, the scores are used, inappropriately many feel, to compare schools and evaluate teachers and principals.

Consider one of the major difficulties we face: students are being tested in April on the extensive standards they are supposed to learn for that year. But we still have as many as six weeks of school left after the testing! That presents quite a challenge for teachers and students.

With all the money, time and aggravation spent on these standardized tests, one must ask what is gained. If schools are ranked by their test scores and that ranking is put beside a ranking of schools by socioeconomic status, guest what? The ranking is very close to the same. (This has been done.) Research has shown repeatedly that socioeconomic status is the number one predictor of academic achievement.

If that is true, why does this practice persist? Lawmakers have noted that we spend billions of dollars on education and we should know if the money is being well-spent. What are we getting for all that money? I think that is a fair expectation of all public dollars. (I’d like to see an evaluation system to determine if all levels of state government produce results commensurate with the funding.)

So if we didn’t use standardized testing to judge the value of our money spent, how would we do it? I’m glad I asked.

The current administration in Harrisburg is on the right track with a proposal for what they call the Future Ready PA Index. According to the Department of Education’s website, “The proposed Future Ready PA Index will serve as Pennsylvania’s one-stop location for comprehensive information about school success, and will use a dashboard model to highlight how schools are performing and making progress on multiple indicators.” The current method of taking all this information and contriving a single number from it so schools can be compared is simply not sound so I’m grateful for the dashboard approach. (However, legislative change has to occur to eliminate the “grading system” as it now exists and annual testing is a federal mandate.)

While this Future Ready Index is a good start, I would also propose that the state move toward an accreditation model. This approach has been around for a long time. Schools are given standards in all areas of operation: academic, financial, extra-curricular, etc. Schools first evaluate themselves on how they are meeting the standards and then a visit from a team of outsiders confirms or challenges their self-evaluation. This team would include trained individuals from the department of education as well as educators from throughout the state.

This type of approach would allow outside people to make recommendations for schools to improve and follow-up would then take place to monitor the improvement.

If the state feels it is their job to hold schools accountable (and it is), there is a responsibility to not only to identify schools that are struggling but also help them improve. Helping schools improve takes action, not simply the creation of competition with charter schools. Competition may work in business but it means there are winners and losers. When there are losers in school systems, it means we are failing our children. That is not a tenable system.

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The Lancer Letter is a weekly editorial by Richard Scaletta, Superintendent of Schools, General McLane School District. Opinions expressed are Mr. Scaletta’s views on the issues and subjects of discussion, and not necessarily those of EdinboroOnline.com or our sponsors.

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