Debunking the false narrative against PSSA tests | Opinion

On Wednesday December 6, 2017, at the library in Colonial Middle School in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced that the state, amid a national push against standardized tests, will not only reduce the number of standardized tests administered, but will also push back the administration of the PSSAs back to later in the school year, effective next spring.

Gov. Wolf joined Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, advocates, and educators in August to announce a significant reduction in standardized testing for elementary students: Students will spend less time taking the tests – 48 fewer minutes on math, 45 fewer minutes on English, and 22 fewer minutes on science.

We all know that our elementary students are subjected to far too many state and federally mandated high stakes standardized tests, right? So this reduction in PSSA testing time must be a fine idea.

But it’s not.

PSSA tests are designed to measure student achievement and year-to-year growth for individual students and their cohorts. They are the only state or federally mandated standardized tests for our elementary students. Math and ELA are tested annually in grade 3 through grade 8 and science is tested in grade 4 and grade 8.

Students spend approximately six hours per day of instructional time in schools for about 182 days per year for eight or nine years counting kindergarten. That is nearly 10,000 hours. Before the recently announced reduction, the PSSA used to take about 50 hours, counting both testing time and test administration.

Therefore we devote approximately .5 percent of elementary school time from K-8 to mandated testing. This is not an excessive amount of time considering the comprehensiveness and high-quality feedback from the PSSA.

The PSSA gives us our best and most comprehensive single measure of student learning and year-to-year progress. Doing well in the PSSA is not any educator’s primary goal. It’s not the most important thing educators do. But it is a much-needed independent, reliable, and valid measure of student achievement and growth. It gives students, parents, teachers, and our community important feedback on student learning, it initiates improvement plans for students who are academically behind, it helps ensure curriculum alignment, scope, and sequence, and it provides an important measure of teacher and school accountability.

The campaign against standardized testing is driven by a false narrative from many of our top educational leaders.

Too many of those leaders claim that we are swamped with lengthy state and federally mandated standardized tests. That is false. They also claim that test preparation takes an extreme amount of time and forces out creativity, exploration, and collaboration. But school districts who overdo test preparation have only themselves to blame. They shortchange our students for no good reason in the futile hope that the result would be a better report card for their districts.

Instead, they should integrate PSSA content into their curriculum, trust their well-qualified teachers and believe that their students can learn. We know that great curriculum plus great teaching results in great test scores. We know that our students can learn and be successful.

It’s also been claimed by educational leaders that students are worried, anxious, and depressed taking these routine annual tests. If so, then the very adults who should be helping the students relax and do their best and benefit from these valuable tests are instead helping to create this unnecessary stress. Whenever this occurs, it is both unethical and unacceptable.

Another part of the false narrative against the PSSA tests is that they are “high stakes.” But the PSSA scores have no influence on promotion, placement, or grades for our students. For our students, they are actually low-stakes tests. For our teachers, they offer valuable feedback that can lead to continuous improvement in their educational practice.

The PSSA does have the potential to embarrass school districts.

I believe that most senior administrators who criticize the PSSA are trying to escape accountability for the performance of their students and their schools. I fear that this attempt to escape accountability is the primary factor that has created and sustained the false narrative against the PSSA that resulted in building a coalition that led to the governor’s unfortunate announcement.

My school district is not perfect, but I’m proud that our school board, superintendent, administrators, and teachers have accepted accountability for our PSSA scores and used them appropriately and reasonably to improve both student achievement and instruction.

My school district has not participated in the false, misleading, and damaging campaign led by senior public school administrators and their allies against the PSSA. Neither should yours.

Jeff Hellrung is a retired Navy captain, a former business manager, and a retired Pennsylvania public school teacher. He is currently serving his fourth term on the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board and represents his school district on the CCIU Board.