The PSSA — Pennsylvania Standardized Testing

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


Objections raised

While many parents and teachers recognize a value to standardized testing if used in a constructive manner, how to do that is up for discussion. Main objections include:

  • valuable learning time lost to test prep
  • time lost in the computer lab where tests are administered
  • the inclination to “teach to the test” as opposed to focusing on a freer, broader curriculum
  • failing to improve educational outcomes by narrowing topics taught to just those covered by the test
  • increasing costs to districts for test-administration infrastructure 
  • the way test prep absorbs teacher professional-development time 
  • the stress standardized testing places on students
  • privacy concerns — educators have confirmed that the testing company Pearson has been monitoring social media for posts or images about its tests, adding a layer of Big Brother oversight detractors worry may become a widespread problem.

Opting out 

Of these many factors, student stress and failure to improve educational outcomes is why local mom of two Carolyn Kim has opted her 5th-grader out of standardized testing this spring. “Aidan is a child who does not love and has struggled with reading,” she says. “This year, his teacher has gotten him excited about reading through novel studies with the kids.” After Kim took a practice assessment to see what Aidan would face on testing day, she felt that he would be expected to read and write on a 6th- or 7th-grade level. “I thought, ‘This is going to undo everything his teacher has done, all his excitement for reading. He’s going to get discouraged and feel like a failure.’ I’m not going to put him through that.”

Some students are refusing to put themselves through it, in their own way. “My kids don't like the testing. They complain a lot and don't want to do it,” says a mom of three who requested anonymity. “My son resents it so much, he has purposely done badly on them, drawing patterns with the dots rather than actually attempting the test.”

Nationwide, parents who feel standardized testing does more harm than good are uniting through PTA groups and social media in a grass-roots opt-out movement. The band-together mentality is having an impact. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, in 2014 1,000 eligible students opted out of taking the PSSAs, a dramatic increase from 260 in 2012. 

Teacher-led informational meetings at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences this year prompted an opt-out increase at the Philly school to the tune of 93 students, up from 20 in 2014. And in Lower Merion Twp., opt-out numbers more than doubled, to 28 from 13. The parental pushback there was fueled by a popular art teacher who blogged about his fear that the district’s vaunted music and art instruction was in jeopardy of being axed to accommodate more test-prep time.

Keystone Exams–wise, 340 and 347 students opted out of the first two rounds of 2013 testing, respectively. In 2014, comparative numbers jumped to 507 and 510. 

Because schools could jeopardize their ranking — and, in turn, their funding — if less than 95 percent of their students participate in standardized tests, test refusal is not made easy. 

In Pennsylvania, a parent or guardian must request an opportunity to review the PSSA through the school, sign a confidentiality agreement and may review the assessment at the school in the presence of district personnel. The parent can then opt out, but only for religious beliefs. If a parent informs a district that “my child is exempted from PSSA/Keystone Exams testing on religious grounds,” that statement may not be legally questioned.

Carolyn Kim considers her decision to opt Aidan out to be an act of civil disobedience. “We’re speaking up because we don’t like where education is heading in this country,” Kim says. “It’s not about the fact that it’s too hard and we’re coddling our kids. We are refusing because the tests are developmentally inappropriate and it’s just one piece of a larger, complex problem in education. We have to start somewhere.” 

Categories: Education Features