Understanding the PSSA exams

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook is examining standardized testing this month. The topic is the focus of our upcoming December-January edition.

What are the PSSAs?

The Pennsylvania Department of Education launched the PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) in 1992. They are standardized tests administered annually and are based on state standards for what students should know and be able to do at various grade levels.

Who put them together?

They are developed and scored by the Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp.

The state sets “cut scores,” determining what results are considered Advanced, Proficient, Basic, or Below Basic.

Who takes them and when?

Every Pennsylvania student in grades 3 through 8 is assessed in English Language Arts and Math. Every student in grades 4 and 8 is also assessed in Science & Technology. This applies to students attending District schools, charters, and cyber charters. About 775,000 students took the PSSA tests in 2015.

Special education students who have an Individualized Education Program that specifically says they should not take the test are excused. Parents may opt their children out, but only for religious reasons.

The tests are taken in the spring. In 2015, it was in April. Schools get a separate one-week window to give each of the three tests.

How many hours do they take?

A 3rd grader will generally be tested for 3½ hours in English in four sections over a one-week period and in math for two hours and 10 minutes in three sections in a second one-week period, for a total of five hours and 40 minutes.

Fourth graders are tested for four hours and 20 minutes in English, two hours and 10 minutes in math and one hour and 40 minutes in science, for a total of eight hours and 10 minutes.

How are results used?

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, “individual student scores, provided only to their respective schools, can be used to assist teachers in identifying students who may be in need of additional education opportunities, and school scores provide information to schools and districts for curriculum and instruction improvement and planning.”

But the scores are also being used to evaluate teachers and schools. Teacher evaluations are based in part on the building’s overall scores and on PSSA performance in that teacher’s classroom. Results also factor heavily into a school’s state’s school rating system, the School Performance Profile. School scores are used by districts in decisions about school turnaround interventions and school closings, and in the charter school renewal process.

In 2015, the state got a one-year waiver from the U.S Department of Education from using the PSSA to rate teachers or schools. This was due to plummeting scores from 2014 after the test was made considerably harder.

What are proficiency rates statewide?

In 2015, 60 percent of students scored advanced or proficient in English; less than 40 percent of students did so in math. In science, 68 percent scored proficient or advanced.

Why was the test made harder?

This was the first year that the tests were fully aligned to new and more rigorous Pennsylvania Core Standards, the state’s version of the Common Core standards. Statewide results showed a 31-point average drop in math proficiency rates and a 9-point drop in English. State Education Secretary Pedro Rivera called the new PSSAs “fundamentally different” and cautioned against seeing the drop in scores as a decline in student performance.

Were there other reasons for the sharp decline?

Teachers and districts complained that curriculum materials from the state were inadequate and late to arrive. Teachers also said that there were insufficient funds to help them prepare students to meet the higher standards.

In Philadelphia, greater demands on students, teacher layoffs, and recent rounds of school closings were also factors cited by Christopher Shaffer, deputy chief of curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

‘We lost the capacity to deliver the implementation, from resources to professional development, parent outreach – the whole gamut,” Shaffer said.

Who decides how the tests are administered?

The state Department of Education. It also trains school personnel to ensure that this is done uniformly throughout the state. Districts determine how to use curriculum materials to prepare students for the tests.

What is controversial about the PSSA?

Supporters – including some civil rights groups – say they are a valuable asset in maintaining standards throughout a state or a district.

Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children & Youth, says, “As a school district, we are well-served when everyone is improving on common measures. … A test is one common measure. The system needs a feedback loop, and the kid needs it, and the parent needs it. … They are signals, and getting rid of them is getting rid of signals.”

Critics describe tests as a waste of time and destructive in their impact.

“It narrows the curriculum,” says Jerry Oleksiak, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, skewing it toward subjects that are tested and away from non-tested subjects like social studies and art. The high stakes attached to the PSSA have led some school administrators and teachers to cheat by changing student answer sheets to boost student test scores.

Critics also say there is little evidence that tests like the PSSA improve learning outcomes and argue that the time involved would be better used for instruction. They point out that student results don’t arrive until after the school year is over, too late for teachers to adjust their approach with those students. And they say that test scores heavily reflect other factors, like poverty.