Pa. educators brace for fallout from plunge in PSSA scores

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

As districts across Pennsylvania brace for an anticipated plunge in scores on the state’s standardized test, educators are worrying about the repercussions while questioning the value of using the volatile test results to make high-stakes decisions about teachers and schools.

Districts and schools will not receive their preliminary results until the end of the month. But statewide data show that the proficiency rates of students on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test have dropped precipitously, especially in math – in some grades by as much as 40 percentage points compared to last year.

Plus, math proficiency rates dropped in each grade, starting at 48.5 percent of students in grade 3 and dropping to 30 percent by grade 8. The drops ranged from 26.6 percentage points for 3rd graders to more than 43 percentage points for 7th and 8th graders.

Overall, the proficiency rates were higher and the drops much smaller in language arts.

Educators noted that a drop in scores is not unusual after a test is revised, as this one was to reflect the new Pennsylvania Core standards. In fact, it is likely.

The state adopted these standards in 2013 in an effort to teach and measure more complex 21st-century skills, such as problem-solving and critical thinking. The tests are also heavier on writing. The “cut scores,” or passing levels, were changed significantly to reflect the new test.

At the same time, the rollout of the new standards and the new test in Pennsylvania has been especially disorganized and confusing, said Christopher McGinley, a professor at Temple University and a former superintendent in Cheltenham and Lower Merion.

Initially, Pennsylvania indicated that it was on board with the Common Core standards, which were drawn up by states under the auspices of the National Governors Association. But when conservatives started blasting the Common Core as an example of federal overreach in education, the Corbett administration dropped any association with the Common Core and instead adopted a version of its own, called the Pennsylvania Core standards. The state never opted into one or the other of the two major Common Core-aligned tests, called PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

Among districts, when the Pennsylvania Core was adopted, “there was confusion as to what exactly it was,” McGinley said. “There were districts that bought textbooks and instructional programs for the Common Core and trained teachers, and then had to set them aside and revamp everything.”

Then, according to McGinley and others, the rollout of the new test this year was less than ideal. Educators knew the test this year would be more rigorous. But teachers didn’t get sample problems until the middle of the year – and for some grades, they never got them.

According to one Philadelphia principal interviewed: “It was frustrating. We knew things were going to change, but we didn’t know exactly how.”

Because of the confusion, McGinley said, “Only districts well-resourced had the wherewithal over the last few years and the staff to implement anything that came out of Harrisburg. Everyone is playing catch-up.”

McGinley suggested that the precipitous drop in scores in math was probably because teachers didn’t cover material that was on the test. According to the results posted on the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website, last year, 70 percent of 8th graders statewide were deemed proficient in math; this year, that plummeted to about 30 percent.

Christopher Clayton, assistant director for education services at the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the new standards call for a lot of topics to be taught one grade earlier than before; for example, what had been 8th-grade material was moved to 7th grade, and 9th-grade material to 8th grade.

In addition, the questions were substantially different, especially in math. For instance, instead of abstract math problems with multiple-choice answers, students were asked to solve word problems that anchored the math in real-world scenarios and then explain how they got the answers.

Retraining teachers to instruct students differently so they can answer those questions correctly is expensive and time-consuming, said Clayton and others, and many districts didn’t have the time or resources to do it well.

Lawrence Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition, who is also a member of the Haverford Township Board of Education, said that the combination of shifting standards, lack of time to adjust, “and the fact that the more financially challenged districts are still recovering from huge budget cuts” account for the drop.

Feinberg wants to see testing significantly ratcheted back and used to “inform instruction, not label schools and teachers.” But educators who are not so critical of testing and concerned about having good accountability measures are also worried about the repercussions of the test-score drop.

Ben Speicher, principal of KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy, said such huge swings in proficiency from one year to the other don’t make sense to many people. And if the results don’t seem to make sense, more people will become more skeptical about the value of testing in general.

“People are going to raise questions on what is this data actually showing us about how kids are doing and how well teachers are teaching,” Speicher said. They will be unconvinced, he said, simply by arguments that “the tests are harder, and harder is good.”

As a result, “It could give the opt-out movement more momentum [as parents conclude] ‘Why are we doing this? It’s not worth it.’”

Speicher also says there needs to be more “honest conversation” about testing itself and how it affects students and teachers. The PSSAs this year – in reading, math, and science – took up the better part of three weeks. Teachers and administrators must spend hours on security measures before and after the test is administered.

“It has a big impact on teachers, kids, and families, and if we don’t talk honestly about it, we could hurt the case for accountability,” he said.

Several people also said that for teachers, parents, and students, vastly different test results can be a huge morale-buster.

Parents “will be shocked if their child has a history of being advanced or proficient, and they are suddenly notified their child is no longer considered proficient,” said McGinley. Teachers and students will also be devastated, he said.

Donna Cooper of Public Citizens for Children & Youth has a different take. She applauds the new standards and the tests, because they are seeking to bring U.S. students on par with the rest of the world. “Better they learn in 8th grade” rather than in high school what they need to learn and do in order to be competitive later, she said.

But she agreed that districts need more funds and resources to properly prepare students and teachers for more rigorous exams. PCCY is at the forefront of statewide lobbying efforts for more funds for education.

It appears that despite Gov. Wolf’s public concerns about overemphasis on testing in general, his administration has not yet sorted things out regarding the new test and the higher standards. Spokespeople for the Pennsylvania Department of Education said that the new scores would factor into both teacher evaluations, as required by a new law, and the School Performance Profiles that rate and rank schools.

Philadelphia officials are concerned about what the new results will show. The District has been doing its best to align instruction with the new standards, but the implementation varies by school, said spokesperson Fernando Gallard.

Preliminary data “does point to the possibility of some significant shift in the scores compared to prior years,” he said. “But we’ve got to wait and see.”