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Op-ed by Amy Morton: PA Student Testing

Every spring Pennsylvania students in grades 3-8 take tests in language arts and math, and every fall the results of those exams are released to the public. In advance of the data being distributed this year, I wanted to explain the changes that took place prior to and since the last testing period so the public will have a clearer understanding of the performance of our schools.

Two separate actions of the State Board of Education will inevitably impact the results. In 2013, the State Board adopted more challenging academic standards to be implemented in our schools. In some cases, content previously taught and assessed at a higher grade level is now included at an earlier age, and the depth of understanding required to correctly answer a test question is often more demanding. This past year was the first time the content of the PA System of School Assessments (PSSAs) reflected the higher standards, and last month the State Board voted to increase the scoring criteria effective immediately, thus raising the levels students must reach to pass a more difficult test. 

School administrators and teachers have been preparing students for a tougher test. What they were not prepared for were the new scoring cutoffs that will be applied to this last round of PSSAs. To illustrate the severity of the change: This year, several eighth graders who scored “advanced” on the Algebra I high school Keystone Exam were deemed only “proficient” on their middle school math PSSA test.

Change is constant, especially in the field of education where the mission is to prepare students for an ever-changing world. The standards need to keep up with the times; otherwise, our children will fall behind. We need to communicate what that means in terms of expectations as reflected in required state tests - both the content and scoring threshold for proficiency. The challenge for many educators has been the number of changes endured regarding state expectations.

We want our students to be challenged and we want them to succeed. Our global economy demands that we ensure our children are as well prepared as possible. That’s why we show up every day, working to create a safe environment where teaching and learning are the primary focus. Increasing rigor on the state tests is welcomed; we need Pennsylvania to be viewed as a high-performing state where families thrive and employers abound. We embrace a tougher test and a higher bar if it results in better chances for our students after graduation. However, we need our constituents to understand that the transition presents a few challenges.

First, and most importantly, if your child’s or grandchild’s PSSA score report indicates a lower performance level than in previous years (from “advanced” to “proficient” or from “proficient” to “basic”), keep in mind that he or she took a tougher test and was expected to reach a higher level to demonstrate his or her knowledge. 

Second, if your child’s or grandchild’s school shows a decline in student performance as measured by the PSSA, know that within the walls of that school are administrators and teachers who labored tirelessly to create a more favorable outcome. They will use the latest round of data to implement strategies and tools that will help students demonstrate their competency in core subject areas. 

And finally, consider how you would feel if you labored mightily to do the best you could with new, more challenging tasks and tougher, harder to hit targets. It’s as if we have been walking up a hill that transformed into a rocky cliff face with a higher summit. We can climb it and we will reach the top, but it may take a little longer and require a few new tools. 

 We believe in your children, and we enlist our communities to believe in us. We are committed to serving our constituencies and are dedicated to meeting the needs of our students. By most measures, our staff and students are successful. These new, challenging state test targets will not deter our determination to do our absolute best. Working together, we will excel!

Amy Morton is the Chief Academic Officer at Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, and is the former Executive Deputy Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. An educator for more than 30 years, Amy has also served as a teacher, curriculum director and intermediate unit executive director. 

This Op-Ed is submitted with the support of all superintendents in the CSIU region: Coleen Genovese, Benton Area; Wayne Brookhart, Berwick Area; Cos Curry, Bloomsburg Area; Harry Mathias, Jr., Central Columbia; Cheryl Latorre, Danville Area; Mark DiRocco, Lewisburg Area; David Campbell, Line Mountain; Richard Musselman, Midd-West; Daniel Lichtel, Mifflinburg Area; Cynthia Jenkins, Millville Area; Cathy Keegan, Milton Area; Bernard Stellar, Mount Carmel Area; Chad Cohrs, Selinsgrove Area; James Zack, Shamokin Area; Ned Sodrick, Shikellamy; Paul Caputo, Southern Columbia Area; and John Kurelja, Warrior Run. 


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