Op/Ed: Good news on standardized testing?

By Jeff Hellrung, Member, Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education

Gov. Tom Wolf joined Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, advocates, and educators last month to announce a significant reduction in standardized testing for elementary students. One test section will be eliminated in both Math and ELA PSSA tests amounting to a 93 minute total time reduction. Also, approximately 22 minutes will be taken by eliminating questions from the PSSA Science test. We all know that our elementary students are subjected to far too many state and federally mandated high stakes standardized tests, right? So this reduction of about 20-25% in PSSA testing time must be a fine idea.

But wait …

PSSA tests are designed to measure student achievement vs. our PA Core Content Standards and also year to year growth for individual students and their cohorts. They are the ONLY state or federally mandated standardized tests for our elementary students. Math and ELA are tested annually in grades 3-8 and Science is tested in grades 4 and 8. Before the recently announced reductions, total test and administration time together was approximately 40-56 hours for the entire elementary school experience. Therefore we devote approximately .5% of elementary school time from K-8 to mandated testing. Is this excessive?

The reason for this mandate stems from federal law which requires states to establish measures of student learning and school accountability. The PSSA is how we do that in our Commonwealth. The PSSA gives us our best and most comprehensive single measure of student learning and year to year progress. Doing well in the PSSA is not our primary goal. It’s not the most important thing we do. But it is a much needed independent, reliable, and valid measure of student achievement and growth. It gives students, parents, teachers, and our community important feedback on student learning, it initiates improvement plans for students who are academically behind, it helps ensure curriculum alignment, scope, and sequence, and it provides an important measure of teacher and school accountability. It’s clear that .5% of instructional time is not an excessive investment for the high quality feedback we get from the PSSA. So, why did we just diminish the comprehensiveness and value of the PSSA by reducing test time?

The campaign against standardized testing is driven by a false narrative from many of our top educational leaders in PA. Too many of those leaders claim that we are swamped with lengthy state and federally mandated standardized tests. That is false. They also claim that test preparation takes an extreme amount of time and forces out creativity, exploration, and collaboration. But school districts who overdo test preparation have only themselves to blame. They shortchange our students for no good reason in the futile hope that the result would be a better report card for their districts. Instead, they should integrate PSSA content into their curriculum and trust their well qualified teachers and believe that their students can learn. We know that great curriculum plus great teaching results in great test scores. We know that our students can learn and be successful.

It’s also been claimed by our educational leaders that students are worried, anxious, and depressed taking these routine annual tests. If so, then the very adults who should be helping the students relax and do their best and benefit from these valuable tests are instead helping to create this unnecessary stress. Whenever this occurs, it is both unethical and unacceptable.

Another part of the false narrative against the PSSA tests is that they are “high stakes.” But the PSSA scores have no influence on promotion, placement, or grades for our students. For our students, they are actually low stakes tests. For our teachers, they offer valuable feedback that can lead to continuous improvement in their educational practice.

The PSSA does have the potential to embarrass school districts. I believe that most senior administrators who criticize the PSSA are trying to escape accountability for the performance of their students and their schools. While claiming that they welcome accountability, they have always attempted to undermine every independent assessment measure that introduces meaningful accountability. These are professional career administrators. What independent accountability measure do they suggest should replace the PSSA? They respond to that question with silence. Unfortunately, I fear that this attempt to escape accountability is the primary factor that has created and sustained the false narrative against the PSSA that resulted in building a coalition that led to the Governor’s unfortunate announcement.

My school district is not perfect, but I’m proud that our school board, superintendent, administrators, and teachers have accepted accountability for our PSSA scores and used them appropriately and reasonably to improve both student achievement and instruction.

My school district has not participated in the false, misleading and damaging campaign led by senior public school administrators and their allies against the PSSA. Neither should yours.

Jeff Hellrung is a retired Navy Captain, a former business manager, and a retired PA public school teacher. He is currently serving his third term on the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board and represents his school district on the CCIU Board

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