Pennsylvania teachers have seen test scores decline over the past four years. The state claims that these waning results are due to the increased rigor of the PSSA (the common state assessment in grades 3-8), as the state moves toward full adoption of the PA Core Standards (Pennsylvania’s interpretation of the Common Core).
At first, the state started to introduce pilot questions that were formatted to measure students’ ability to write about their readings (text-dependent analysis). 2014-2015 marked the first year that the PSSA reading and writing elements were combined into one ELA test.
The state has shared that they would realign the baselines so that districts were not penalized for earning low scores. Unfortunately for teachers, however, these scores are calculated into their overall performance, under the new teacher evaluation system. The current evaluation system does not account for many variables, including the changing tests, aka moving targets for student learning, against which teachers are measured.
Unfortunately, the public is not made aware of all of the details that are behind this assessment story. What is eventually reported is an overall score called an SPP – School Performance Profile, reportedly reflecting how the entire school (and district) made out the previous school year. Left out is that the work that Kindergarten through second grade teachers, specialists, and any other non-tested subject area teachers is not included in the “report card.” Left out is the fact that schools can earn “bonus points” for students who take SAT and AP tests, which is how some schools are able to “look better” than others when the school report card is published. Left out is that teachers are working so much harder each year, because they are tasked with teaching standards that it would take the typical K-12 system 22 years to cover. Then, teachers are asked to teach to mastery skills that are assessed differently each year, making achievement comparisons tenuous. Teachers are doing more while the public is being told they are achieving less.
In my experience as an classroom teacher in a tested subject, I shared with my students that my role was to guide them toward becoming critical readers and writers of a variety of texts (literature, informational, persuasive, poetry, music, art, video), so that they could be thoughtful consumers and learners. I, unfortunately, would share that the test may or may not measure these qualities, but it was something that I hoped they would take seriously so that they would not have to enroll in a remediation course that would take away a pleasurable elective or other academic choice. I have attended many workshops from renowned literacy experts, during which they share that they explain to their own students that testing is a separate “genre” that they will only complete during their school years, and will only “study” briefly so that students felt comfortable taking the test. Test-taking reading and writing are not life-long skills to be practiced and treasured.
There will always be two sides to the question, if assessments were divorced from accountability, might the improvements made each year be moving in the right direction? Many in the workforce see how accountability is essential to understanding job performance. Society would never allow a doctor to not have to account for the death of a patient. A CEO must fill out quarterly reports to show that money has been earned and not lost. But teachers who work with our most precious commodity (our students) are not made better when the issues of poverty, homelessness, safety, and equity in our schools are consistently ignored by policy makers. Rather than address the real barriers to a student’s ability to grow academically, which require large and real financial solutions, teachers are blamed for the lack of progress.
What the public really needs to understand right now is that teachers provide safe, supportive, nurturing environments for society’s children. In Pennsylvania, teachers are spending their own money to purchase sneakers for students who would go without. Counselors are putting together back-pack programs so that children (and their families) will have food over the weekend, when school is not in session. Librarians are meeting with children and their caregivers in local libraries and giving them tours of various community resources so they can make ends meet. And all teachers are reading, taking courses, and planning to welcome the next year’s groups of students all summer, so that each child is greeted with a brightly decorated room and learns to know that they matter. Pennsylvania needs to rally around our teachers and hail them as the advocates and heroes they are to PA children and not allow politicians determine how we view them.
When did your report card ever tell the whole story about you?