Saturday, October 21, 2006

Some Thoughts on the PSSA: PA Educational Standards.

I've been doing a lot of thinking recently about the PSSA's (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) and about the many objections arising from them. These tests are administered every few years to each public school student in the state. They were created in response to the "No Child Left Behind Act" of the federal government. This program is much maligned for several reasons... and I'm going to present my thoughts about some of them:

1. "No Child Left Behind" is an unfunded mandate. - The federal government required states to form standards assessments, and to administer them to all public school students. The costs of testing, preparation, and remediation are assumed by the states and the local school districts. If districts or states refuse to participate, then they lose their federal funding supplements for education. If individual districts do not maintain "Average Yearly Progress (AYP)", they enter a series of successive penalty stages. The federal government has promised to provide support for schools not able to make the required AYP. This support has not been forthcoming.

2. The Average Yearly Progress benchmarks are unrealistic. - By 2014, 100% of public school students will be expected to achieve proficiency on math, reading and writing tests. This includes children with severe learning disabilities- who in many cases are expected to demonstrate proficiency on tests that are many grades above their functional reading ability. There are currently no alternative assessments for this population.

3. If AYP is not met for any particular subgroup, then the entire school district is labeled as having made inadequate progress, regardless of the overall numbers. - If the district has 40 or more students in a subgroup, then the subgroup's progress is considered independently from the rest of the population. Subgroups include the economically disadvantaged, english-as-a-second language students, and learning support students (formerly known as "Special Ed"). Therefore student bodies with large numbers of these students are at an unfair disadvantage. This has actually led to districts pulling kids from learning support programs.

4. Test item variability is unpredictable and extreme.- Many teachers, especially at the elementary level, have complained that test questions have changed radically from year-to-year, requiring significant class time to make adjustments to instruction.

5. Arbitrary and subjective evauation. - Standards assessments contain open-ended test items, and are graded on a rubric including subjective factors, and vague definitions. Tests are graded by two evaluators. If there is a discrepancy on the score, then a third evaluator makes the final decision. Academics, many who have been out of the teaching profession for years, construct the test. Teachers have no input on test construction.

6. Pressure to meet AYP leads to "teaching to the test".- Educators who are already overburdened with crowded classrooms, extensive curricular expectations, onerous regulations and extended education requirements, are expected to adapt strategies specifically aimed at improving standards test scores. Some would assert that such a strategy diverts energies that otherwise could be used to present a student-centered teaching approach that treats each student according to his/her needs and abilities. It is also perceived as a serious obstacle to creative learning.

7. Because of the impossibility of reaching the AYP benchmarks of "No Child Left Behind", public school education will ultimately be discredited through the media. - Whether intentional or not, the practical impossibility of 100% proficiency will lead to the flawed assumption that the nation's public school system is a failure. This will delight critics, who want to privatize education, but will not reflect the challenges faced by educators in an environment of incredible student diversity. Private schools are not required to adminster PSSA's to their student body, and can thus make claims of comparative superiority that can not truly be measured. In addition, private school performance is skewed by the fact that they can exclude students at their discretion. Public schools are mandated to provide education to every student, regardless of student ability or effort.

8. The focus of the PSSA's on reading, writing and math may lead to a diversion of resources away from other subjects. - Because so much rides on student peformance on these skills, some schools (especially on the elementary level) are de-emphasizing social studies, art, music, and languages education (science PSSA's are in the works). While the core subjects being assessed are crucial, a well-rounded and diverse educational experience is both enriching and broadening. Some subject area teachers are being pressured to integrate cross-curricular education in skills they are neither trained in, or qualified to teach.

Despite the many reservations I have with the "No Child Left Behind" Act, it shouldn't be assumed that I am against the identification and/or focus on core standards. I have a problem with the way the program is being implemented. The legislation that inspired this overhaul of our school system was well-intentioned... at least on the part of some lawmakers. It seems clear that others were disingenuous in their support for improving public education. The current administration has been negligent in funding the remediation aspects of the bill.

The outstanding flaw of this legislative approach is its execution. It is constructed in a manner that prioritizes the exposure of assumed flaws in public education. It does nothing to assist educators in the very challenging task of meeting the diverse population of students, or meet the glaring resource deficits that exist. If standards assessments were used to diagnose weaknesses with the intention of helping remediate them with federal funding... then the legislation might be a force for good. Unfortunately the media is complicit with politicians in deceiving the public into believing that a commitment to public education has been made, while exactly the opposite is true.


Anonymous jefg said...

I'm of the mind that the idea has merits, but it is flawed in its execution, the expected success levels and timelines. I wonder who will have the guts to stand up and admit it's far too agressive, and needs to be changed. Otherwise, public education will (again) be deemed to have failed, and support will grow for a voucher system and the purported advantage of private schools and competition. Wait, I think that's it, isn't it? Wrong. The answer is recognizing public programs that do work, providing realistic expectations, and putting your money where your mouth is to move in a positive direction. Making something look bad, setting them up for failure, is not the ideal path to improvement.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

It seems we agree on this issue. I don't foresee any politician gaining political traction by saying that 100% proficiency is ultimately unrealistic. But it has to be said.

"No Child Left Behind" seems like the perfect solution for most of today's politicians... it makes people feel good to hear that there's a program, yet it doesn't sustain media attention in a 24-hour news cycle, and thus doesn't require actual funding.

12:16 PM  

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