Officials warn of likely drops in student PSSA scores

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TestSheetDOWNINGTOWN — Parents of students across Chester County may be in for a bit of a shock when they see their child’s PSSA scores, officials warn.

Chester County superintendents and their counterparts across the commonwealth issued a warning to parents Friday that their children’s state assessment scores, known as the PSSAs, may drop when they receive their student’s official scores this September.

A number of districts around the county have been putting out word that the new tests are much more difficult and have resulted in lower test scores overall, but this week’s warnings make it clear how much tougher the new Core Standards tests are.

Preliminary results of test scores released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to school districts indicate that scores statewide have plummeted, officials said. According to the Department of Education, this is a result of the first-time administration of a Pennsylvania State System of Assessment (PSSA) aligned to the Pennsylvania (PA) Core Standards, which were adopted in 2013. 

The new test prompted the Pennsylvania Department of Education to obtain a one-year waiver from the U.S. Department of Education in using the 2015 PSSA scores to calculate School Performance Profiles (SPP) for schools with students in grades 3-8.  The SPP is used to provide the community with an overall rating of their public schools performance as well as used in the teacher effectiveness ratings in public school teachers’ evaluations.  As a result, most public and charter elementary and middle schools will not recieve an SPP score this year. High schools will still receive an SPP score as high school students take the Keystone Exams and not the PSSAs.

In a letter to the commonwealth’s superintendents, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera alerted the state’s top educators of the drop in scores.

“The PSSAs in English, language arts and mathematics administered this past spring were comprised solely of the new, more challenging standards,” wrote Secretary Rivera. “Our new, more rigorous standards have resulted in lower standardized test scores, particularly in mathematics.”

“It is important to note that these anticipated results represent a snapshot in time of student progress….The PA Core Standards that were adopted in 2013 set the bar high, purposefully, in order to better prepare our students to be college and career ready when they graduate. Our students haven’t changed, but the assessment has,” concluded Rivera.

More information regarding the PSSAs and the impact of the new test can be found on the PA Department of Education’s website at

Preliminary results indicate that 70 percent of the commonwealth’s eighth graders are no longer proficient in math, which will undoubtedly come as a surprise to over 50 percent of parents whose same children were proficient or advanced in mathematics as seventh graders on the PSSA.

In addition, eighth grade students who also took the Algebra I Keystone Exam, which is part of Pennsylvania’s graduation requirements, could find themselves in the unique position of having passed the Keystone Exam but failed the PSSA. That may have many asking the question: how can two different state assessments provide such conflicting information to teachers, students, and families? And are either an accurate reflection of the students’ mathematics skills?

While Chester County public school students have typically outscored their peers on the PSSAs, and it is anticipated that the county’s students will perform above the state average on the PSSAs again this year, officials said, the county’s superintendents are still preparing for double-digit drops in student PSSA scores. They are alerting parents early that the scores students receive are not reflective of students’ ability but rather a new testing system.

In a message sent to parents prior to the start of the school year, Dr. Michael Christian, superintendent of the Owen J. Roberts School District wrote:

We wanted to be proactive and explain the new testing and scoring process so that students are not discouraged by their results,” Christian said. “This year’s scores are a baseline for a new state mandated assessment and are just one data point of our children’s academic achievement. Despite the changes to the PSSA and the cut scores, I am confident not only in our faculty’s ability to teach, but also in our students’ successes in the classroom.”

Likewise, Dr. James Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District (WCASD) informed parents in July.

“I am writing to inform you that we anticipate West Chester scores to be significantly lower than last year,” wrote Scanlon. “Typically, our (WCASD) scores are among the highest in the state, and I expect them to remain high relative to state averages. However, the state anticipates that 70 percent of its eighth grade students will not be considered proficient in math and 41 percent of its fourth grade students to not be proficient in reading.”

“The PSSA has been one measure of assessing student progress in PA since 1999,” stated Scanlon. “I believe the number of tests and the time we are devoting to them is excessive, and the manner in which the state is using them is often not helpful or fair. We need to continue to work with our legislators to make changes.”

In 2013-14, 89 percent of eighth graders in the Owen J. Roberts and West Chester Area School Districts scored proficient or advanced on the eighth-grade math PSSA.

Ironically, while the state implements a new test which scores over 70 percent of its eighth graders at either basic or below basic in math and 40 percent of its fourth graders in basic or below basic in reading, researchers from the National Center for Educational Statistics rank Pennsylvania students as among the best in the nation. Pennsylvania’s students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading and math rate them among the top in the country.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only three states have statistically significant higher fourth-grade reading scores than Pennsylvania and only two states have statistically significant higher eighth-grade reading scores than PA; only seven states have statistically significant higher fourth-grade math scores than PA, and only five states have statistically significant higher eighth-grade math scores than PA.

The researchers also performed a study that statistically linked state performance on the NAEP eighth-grade mathematics and science tests with international performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) eighth-grade mathematics and science tests.

  • Science: Pennsylvania’s NAEP performance would rank it below only six education systems (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Japan, Finland, Alberta-Canada), comparable to four, and above 37.
  • Math: Pennsylvania ranked below only six education systems (Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, and Russia), comparable to Quebec, and above 40.

“You look at how our Chester County students compare in Pennsylvania to those in the rest of the nation and by all objective measures, our students are outperforming their peers nationally and internationally,” said Dr. Joseph O’Brien, executive director, Chester County Intermediate Unit. “We need to keep our perspective when looking at these latest results. They are but one measure of our students’ ability and of the quality education students receive in public schools in Chester County and throughout the Commonwealth.”    Send article as PDF   

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  1. Sandy Beach says:

    Comparisons between the educational system and student performance in the US versus those in other countries do not always compare apples to apples. In some of the above mentioned countries, not all students are included in the assessments as they are in the US. There is tracking of university bound and votech students. Many of these countries do not test students as often as American schools do. There are many other differences in the funding of public education, testing procedures, educational protocols, teacher training/pay, parenting practices, and cultural traditions and values. All these differences make it unrealistic to compare and rank schools in different countries. However, it’s always interesting to look at how other countries raise and educate their children and take away ideas and practices that make sense for our country.

    • Anonymous says:

      As students, parents and teachers become more familiar with Common Core, test scores will rise. Current scores will serve as a baseline for future years. The increased rigor of the tests will take time for students to transition to the new standards, and it will take additional resources to prepare students to reach achievement levels we are used to seeing year in and year out.

      Resources will have to be diverted to helping students. I believe the results of Keith’s study, that shows only two factors are significant – Parental Education and Poverty and those two factors alone can explain the bulk of the differences in academic achievement.” And the fact that parents are treated like unwanted intrusions into a process that only exists because of their involvement and financial backing is especially insulting.

      Millions upon millions of hard earned tax payer dollars thrown at maintenance buildings, fencing, positions and over the top salaries for employees whose influence has no effect on student performance – it has to stop.

      The focus has to return to the students, and teachers do matter!

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