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Let’s Stop Using PSSA Scores as a Hammer

More Valley schools miss the mark under No Child Left Behind.

To say I was a weak math student is a little like saying Hitler was a bad guy. Math teachers worked with me after class, my parents tutored me and I’d think I understood how to use the Point-Slope Formula to calculate something or other. Then I’d take a test and find out otherwise.

I never flunked a class but that was only because back in the 70s my math teachers must have assured themselves I was never going to design bridges – at least none they would drive on – and they held their noses to pass me. Had I needed to earn a proficient rating in math to graduate, I’d currently be the oldest living high school senior. 

Yet, remarkably all my life I’ve found work that I could do without higher level math. This isn’t to brag about my ignorance; it’s a plea for reason in the face of the deadline under No Child Left Behind that all children be proficient in math and reading by 2014. 

On Sunday, The Morning Call published the local results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment showing more schools failed to make “adequate yearly progress” under the law. That’s partly because the state has again raised the bar on what percentage of students must earn proficient scores. Some schools, including a few in Bethlehem, East Penn and Parkland, met overall goals but still got failing grades because not enough of their special education students were deemed proficient. 

All but the most developmentally disabled students take the regular PSSA.  I’ve seen sample problems on the math PSSAs and my question is this: If students in special education can do these problems, what are they doing in special ed?

The Obama Administration recently rolled out new guidelines that would allow states to apply for waivers for parts of No Child Left Behind so long as they adopt certain reform measures, including closing schools with low standardized test scores, turning them into charters or firing the principal. That’s like holding a dentist responsible for your cavities when he can’t control how often you brush or floss. It still gives too much credence to standardized test scores.

Local school boards and administrators are better able to decide if a principal is good at his or her job than someone in Washington looking at a handful of numbers.

Accepting that not all students are going to be good at higher level math and reading is not an invitation to dumb down curriculum. Curriculums have been dumbed down plenty. Under high stakes testing, teachers must stay on lessons tied to the test until every kid gets it – an approach that leaves good math students bored to death.

Meanwhile, teachers and administrators fearing for their jobs start practice tests months in advance – crowding out lessons and classes that broaden the curriculum. You never know what subject is going to catch fire with a student, leading to a lifelong passion and career.

PSSAs should be just one tool in the educational tool box; we need to stop using them as a hammer.

College Professor May 15, 2012 at 03:08 PM
NCLB doesn't establish common minimum standards, except in terms of AYP test scores. There is no educational uniformity or a common platform in which to compare. Each state creates its own set of standards for each subject and each creates its own version of state-based standardized testing. Hence the drive towards Common Core standards. Perhaps you've heard of them? Maybe you have NCLB confused with Common Core standards? And, have you ever actually looked at the standards? Talk about the bar being set LOW. Additionally, NCLB and PSSA test scores have nothing to do with whether a child repeats a grade. As for this statement - "I do find it funny that the same educators who have advocated and implemented inclusive education and homogeneous grouping are against holding the students to the same standard" - I wish I understood what you were trying to convey, because while it is nice-sounding sentence, it doesn't actually make any sense. Additionally, it is NCLB that insists upon homogeneity and it is IDEA that insists upon "least restrictive environment" which leads to inclusion. As a college professor, over the last 5 years, all I have seen are students who graduated from nice schools who don't really know how to read (i.e., comprehend) or do math and they certainly don't know what it means to think critically about a topic or subject. They do know how to memorize information and pass a test and then forget what they memorized. Hypocrisy, not hypocracy. Too funny.
Carol May 15, 2012 at 04:01 PM
1. State standards are based on NCTM standards in most states. I agree that standards should be uniform across all states. 2. Show me where NCLB insists on homogeneous grouping? If it did, districts would be banned from teaching remedial math courses that are commonly used for low scoring students. Least restrictive environment rules came at the behest of educational "advocates", also know as college professors. 3. All students in a class should be assessed on the uniform standards for the material. If a student can not do the work, they should in a class consistent with their abilities, not used as an excuse for the class not meeting standards. 4. PSSA tests have constructive response questions that measure students critical thinking skills. 5. Don't blame NCLB for lack of thinking skills. It only says that students should be able to meet the standards. It does not dictate how the material is taught. It correctly leaves those decisions to individual schools / districts. Your statement implies that students do not can not think or memorize. If that is the case, then the schools are indeed failing. (Of course, the ivory tower believes that all critical thinking occurs in the colleges or occupy campsites.) 6. Where did I say that students repeat grades for PSSA scores? It looks like your comprehension isn't very good either. Retaining students is extremely rare and pushing them along for social reasons only increases the student's academic problems.
College Professor May 16, 2012 at 04:43 PM
The bottom line is this: I interact with students who have come out of many of our local high schools on a day in, day out/year in, year out basis. Many of them do not read well and most of them avoid anything math-related like the plague. Don't even bother to ask them about history, geography, or science, They'll tell you they learned how to "do school" and that that was what they were encouraged to do. By "doing school" they mean they memorized info for school-based tests and state-based tests then immediately forgot the information. The only thing that was expected from them was to "get a good score"/"get a good grade" because "it will help you get into a good college" - it was made clear to them that actually learning something in a meaningful way was not the goal. Cheating in school was rampant and tolerated as long as it wasn't too blatant. Students report that they either chose to participate in the "doing school" process or that they chose to not bother. By the time I see them in college, they have been trained to ask on the first day of class "Will this be on the test?" (they believe they are only obligated to "learn" test-related info). They are terrified to ask questions in class and will explain that that, in general, has been frowned upon. They find reading to be boring and their overall goal is to use the internet to find information that can be cut-and-pasted into their assignments; beyond that, their primary efforts are directed towards facebook and texting.
ted.dobracki May 16, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Indiana has a new requirement this year that any third grader failing the IREAD test be retained.
Rosemary B May 16, 2012 at 06:30 PM
wow, what a sad commentary on today's education system.

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