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State officials announce drop in PSSA scores, plans for improvement

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

As the state’s Department of Education released statewide and school-by-school PSSA results today, officials reiterated their view that the plunge in scores is a direct result of a new test that demands more high-order thinking than past tests did.

Statewide, 40 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in mathematics, and 60 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in English language arts.

These numbers are down from 2014 results of 72 percent proficient or advanced in math and 70 percent proficient or advanced in English language arts.

Responding to the results, the state’s largest teachers’ union is calling for a three-year pause in the use of test scores in teacher evaluations and school performance ratings – beyond the one-year pause that is already in place.

More conceptual work

The new PSSA for the first time aligns with more rigorous Pennsylvania Core Standards adopted by the state in 2013, said Matthew Stem, deputy secretary of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“In mathematics, there is now less content being taught at each grade level, but there is a much greater sense of depth. There’s more emphasis on conceptual work as well as the metacognitive process. It’s really about the mathematical habits of mind, reasoning, problem-solving, modeling, and decision-making,” he said.

These standards have even caused a shift in what’s being taught at each grade level.

Stem added, “Certain concepts that used to be taught in 2nd grade are now being taught in 4th grade, and certain concepts that were taught in 5th grade are now being taught in 4th.”

And for language arts, the rigor has a lot to do with the content being taught. Stem explained that there is more focus on nonfiction with the new standards. Prior standards relied heavily on fiction.

“The numbers are not unlike what other states are seeing when they adopted more rigorous standards and assessments," said Stem. "This year’s scores tell us that there are opportunities for continued growth in some of the more rigorous skills that are being expected of students with the core standards."

The state test-score data also include information for a “historically underperforming” subgroup. This subgroup represents students who are economically disadvantaged, English language learners, students with IEPs, and students of various ethnicities.

Of these students, 41 percent performed proficient or better in English language arts statewide, and 22 percent were proficient or better in mathematics.

“This category in the data ensures that we are being cognizant of supporting all students to meet the higher standards we have established,” said Stem.

To get an accurate measure of whether a school is improving, the state suggests that parents and school officials also look at the school’s growth score.

“If a district has growth scores that are at 75 or above, that gives us a good sense that they are exhibiting the growth year after year that people hope to see,” explained Stem.

Scores won’t be used for school ratings

This year, the state has been granted a one-year federal waiver from using these PSSA scores in its school rating system with the possibility of extension for an additional year. The waiver will allow it to defer the release of School Performance Profiles for school serving grades 3-8, so they will not reflect these low scores.

Calling for a three-year pause on use of the test scores for accountability purposes, Jerry Oleksiak, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said, “Schools need time to align their curriculum, instructional materials, and professional development to this new system. These things just don’t happen overnight. If we’re going to do this right, we need to take the time to plan for it.”

State officials say they will use this year’s scores to establish goals and determine how to best channel resources to struggling districts. It will take additional time and support for teachers and students to reach this higher bar, but the state is offering a number of resources, explained Stem.

These resources include curriculum frameworks designed and posted for districts, classroom diagnostic assessments to gauge student acquisition skills, grade-level emphasis guides that are directly aligned to the standards, iTunes U courses designed through Pennsylvania Learns, and the Department of Education website that offers online professional development instructional modules for educators and students.

“We anticipate that as we continue to align and address gaps between the prior curriculum and the core standards, we will see that filter up through the system and set students up to be much better prepared as we move forward,” said Stem.

Stem said the state was unable to comment on proficiency levels in charter schools as compared to district-run schools.

"We don’t really look at schools through the lens of comparing charters against the traditional brick-and-mortar public schools. We try to support all schools. We haven’t interpreted or disaggregated the data to give us any trends relative to charter schools or relative to where the greatest gains or decreases might have taken place across the state."

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