Pa. school leaders brace for impact of state test declines

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

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Last month, WHYY/NewsWorks reported that scores on state standardized tests have dropped precipitously based on the implementation of more rigorous tests.

Educators across the state are reeling now that they have learned how much scores have plummeted in their individual schools.

Elementary and middle school principals in Philadelphia are reporting 10 to 20 percentage-point drops on the English language arts exam and 30 to 40 percentage point drops on the math exam.

The 2014-15 school year was the first in which PSSA tests – taken in grades 3 through 8 – were aligned with Pennsylvania’s version of the Common Core state standards.

For that reason, officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Education say, it is misleading to compare student proficiency rates to prior years; 2014-15 should be considered the "new baseline," the department said.

Despite that advisory, principals and administrators are bracing for how the news will affect parents, students and teachers.

"My concern is really messaging it to my teachers because my teachers worked so hard last year," said Anh Brown, principal of Nebinger Elementary in South Philadelphia. "They worked really, really hard."

Preliminary scores at Nebinger show a 40 percentage-point drop in math and a 20 percentage-point decline in English language arts.

"We knew it was going to go down, but we didn’t know by how much," she said.

Eileen Hoffman, principal of Shawmont Elementary in Upper Roxborough, also said scores dropped by 20 percentage points in English and more than 40 percentage points in math.

"It’s going to be a very difficult conversation," said Hoffman. "We have to change our instructional practices and improve instruction for our kids. … It’s a culture shift."

Logan Elementary School principal Chuanika Sanders-Thomas said her school’s proficiency rate in math dropped from 50 percent to 16 percent.

"We’re going to cry for a moment, but we’re going to dust ourselves off and help the kids learn more this year," said Sanders-Thomas. "We have to talk to parents about how times have changed. It’s not like it was when you were in school. The expectations have changed. So we need you to get on board."

On the bright side, Logan’s English language arts score held steady.

"At least I get to have the positive to go along with the bad news," said Sanders-Thomas.

Another elementary school principal speaking anonymously blamed the drops on insufficient teacher training. Only a small core of her teachers was motivated to change methods, she said.

"One of my biggest problems is not having teachers trained to teach in a way that meets the standards of the new PSSA," the principal said. "This is a big wake-up call for us. We can’t keep doing the same things."

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks