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Buckling down, measuring up, and bubbling to the finish line: Time for the PSSA

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The PSSA has descended upon Philadelphia. While my 4th graders don’t take the science section until the 26th, we’ve been prepping for over a month now.

The Office of Teaching and Learning suggested we start implementing strategies 60 class days before the test, which was January 22nd. The Meeting the Challenge document provided by Teaching and Learning contains strategies to work on every day in addition to the core curriculum.

Some of the strategies are already part of what I would normally teach such as "having students use their science notebooks to collect and analyze data" or "state Big Ideas frequently." Other strategies like "use the Elimination Strategy to choose the right answer to multiple choice questions" are very difficult to implement in the course of teaching the core curriculum.

The day I was supposed to go over test-taking strategies I was conducting a performance assessment of my students’ knowledge of electromagnetism. Students cannot use a multiple-choice test in lieu of a performance assessment. It defeats the purpose of FOSS’s formative assessment. Having met some of the people who worked on developing the assessments, I trust and agree with their work. So why does this disconnect exist?

The PSSA results make or break your school. As the SPI ratings have shown, a school is as good as its PSSA scores. Schools that don’t meet the cut scores receive Empowerment status.

Empowerment, and all its forms of intervention, will not raise my students’ science scores. Content knowledge will raise my students’ scores. Empowerment status would actually make it next to impossible to implement science instruction with fidelity to the planning and scheduling timeline due to time constraints.

Getting content knowledge into my students’ heads can only happen when I have them in class teaching them how what they already know relates to what they are currently learning. I like to incorporate online assignments for work that students can do outside of school. I can’t build an assignment for students if I don’t know what they need. It takes time to build content knowledge. I have precious little time to teach now, adding test-taking skills can overwhelm the curriculum. Barring the invention of Corrective Science, what is to be done?

Is there value in teaching test-taking skills? Absolutely. But defining instruction by the test-taking skills doesn’t allow for actual scientific knowledge to be learned.

What if the District actually audited how much science was being taught in Kindergarten through 4th grade? What if every classroom had all of the science supplies they needed to teach with? What if every science teacher got the professional development they needed to implement specific curriculum to its fullest potential?

I think the answer to these questions would be that our students would do fine on the PSSA because they have the knowledge, not because they learned the tricks and tips to test taking.