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The PSSA -- Pennsylvania Standardized Testing

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Pennsylvania’s test tableau 

The state’s standardized test mix starts with the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment), around since 1998 and built up to conform to NCLB standards. Students in grades 3 through 8 must sit an English language-arts and mathematics PSSA; grades 4 and 8 also take a science track. Four levels of scoring deem students advanced, proficient, basic or below basic. The NCLB-aligned goal was to see 100 percent of test-takers score proficient or above in reading and math by 2014, a marker no state hit. 

High schoolers take the newer Keystone Exams, implemented in 2012-13, to assess proficiency in a range of subjects: algebra, geometry, literature, English composition, biology, chemistry, US history, world history, and civics and government. The class of 2017 will be the first required to pass Keystone Exams in algebra, literature and biology in order to graduate.

Kids with significant cognitive disabilities take the PASA (Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment), designed specifically to accommodate students unable to complete the PSSA. 
Districts may also choose to administer CDTs (Classroom Diagnostic Tools). These multiple-choice online tests in reading/literature, writing/composition, math and science for grades 3 through 12 preview the type of material found on the PSSAs or the Keystone Exams. 

Also available are NAEPs (National Assessments of Educational Progress), tests in core subjects that break down score results by  gender, racial and ethnic group and special accommodations.
Finally, high school juniors face nonmandatory but highly recommended SAT and/or ACT college entrance exams. 

How are scores used?

That is a lot of testing  — and a ton of numbers to crunch. 

“Schools and districts use the results to guide instruction and curriculum,” says PA Department of Education Information Specialist Jessica Hickernell. “The state uses the results for both state and federal accountability.” 

Scores determine a school’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in reading and math, which requires a certain percentage of students to record advanced or proficient PSSA levels. 
Student scores also contribute to teacher evaluations and school rankings. Because student participation in standardized testing is a weighted factor that can impact school ranking, the state has set a target test-participation rate of 95 percent of a student body.

Schools that repeatedly fail to meet benchmarks in any of these test-adjacent metrics can face sanctions that negatively impact students — loss of school funding, restaffing, even closure. 

The teacher gamut

Given the way standardized testing affects their jobs, educators are intimately involved on all sides of the testing debate.

“We cannot live in a bubble; we have to see how our kids are doing compared to the individuals they’re going to be competing with,” said Philadelphia school district spokesman Fernando Gallard, stressing his belief in testing’s importance.

On the flip side, the pressure for proficiency has led to illegal activity. A well-publicized multiyear standardized-testing scandal has rocked the Atlanta public school district. Here in Philly, eight educators have recently been charged in promoting PSSA cheating by changing or providing student answers or improperly previewing test questions with students. As a result, the district fired three principals in January and plans to discipline dozens more teachers and administrators for “helping” students better their PSSA outcomes.

Next page: Objections raised and the opt-out movement

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