Local school representatives speak out against state assessments

This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website and The Mercury‘s website.
Two school representatives from Chester County spoke in front of the state's House of Representatives' Education Committee regarding state assessments. (Politics PA)

Two school representatives from Chester County spoke in front of the state’s House of Representatives’ Education Committee regarding state assessments. (Politics PA)

It’s no secret that Pennsylvania State Assessments have become a controversial topic in the educational field with teachers, administrators, students and parents.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ Education Committee gathered July 29 to hold a public hearing and two Chester County school representatives were present to give testimonies about the assessments.

Neither stood up for them.

“If I could grade the testing system today, I would say that it’s failing,” said Linda Hicks to the committee. “From my perspective in the classroom, I don’t really see how it is productive — either for students or teachers.”

… [Please continue the story on the Daily Local News website by clicking here.]

Hicks, a fourth grade teacher in the Oxford Area School District, spoke as a teacher and as a parent of children who have taken the Keystones Exams.

“I can say with confidence that children are not benefiting from our testing system,” she said. “Throughout my years in the classroom, I have observed children learning nothing from these tests. Is the goal that we help students become better test-takers? We are testing for the sake of testing rather than for constructive uses.”

Instead of just the PSSA tests and SATs, students now also take Keystone Exams, which will soon determine whether a student will graduate or not.

Jim Scanlon, superintended of the West Chester Area School District, is discussing the possibility of opting his son out of PSSAs after seeing what all the testing has done in the schools.

“That negativity is already beginning to drive down our test scores,” he said. “Learning should be challenging, but also enjoyable and exciting. Teaching should be dynamic and creative. We’re missing so much of that because of these tests.”

Some parents are now choosing to take their children out of public schools and are instead place them in private ones.

The stress of the assessments has taken a physical and mental toll on students — the likes of which are shocking educators.

“My students experience anxiety attacks, stomach aches and some of them just don’t come to school with the hope they’ll get out of the tests,” Hicks said. “Our district has witnessed a spike in the number of parents who opt their children out of the tests because of demands placed upon their children and the exhaustion and anxiety it causes them.”

Scanlon has seen the same.

“We had one high school student who was actually pulling her hair out because she was so stressed about having to pass her Keystone,” he said.

In June, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that would delay two years the requirement of passing the Keystone Exams to graduate.

For now, the 2017 freshmen will need to pass Keystone Exams in algebra 1, biology and literature to receive a diploma.

If they fail any of the Keystones, a student will then be placed in remedial courses — costing them the opportunity of taking electives — until they pass the Keystone or a Project Based Assessment.

“We had a student fail the algebra and biology Keystone Exam, but received a scholarship to a culinary arts school because of the program he attended at the technical school,” Scanlon said. “If that student was a junior today, he would be removed from his electives, the technical school, and be placed in remedial courses. Because he will miss out on the technical school courses, he most likely won’t get involved with culinary arts and won’t be eligible for a college scholarship. Decisions about assessments have a huge impact on the future of many students.

“Beginning with the class of 2017, even a straight ‘A’ student who doesn’t do well on Keystones won’t receive a diploma under state law. Many of these students will be applying to college and I know that some will be accepted by January of their senior year, but if they don’t pass all three Keystone Exams or an online Project Based Assessment, they will have their acceptance letters rescinded. It will happen.”

Neither school representative wanted to see testing altogether removed.

However, they felt that the assessments didn’t need to be as high-stakes as they are becoming.

“As an educator, I understand that students need to be assessed,” Hicks said. “We need to gather data to see how students are performing and to assess whether or not they’re learning at their specific grade level. However, the need to assess students’ progress has become excessive and strenuous as testing is connected to more and more high-stakes initiatives.”

Scanlon felt that too much of the students’ education is focusing on tests instead of learning.

“We are asking students to do something that’s entirely unfair — to spend weeks and weeks filling in bubbles, taking standardized tests and having their entire educational ambition directed toward passing them,” he said. “This is not what public education was intended to do, nor should do.”

Hicks knows teachers also run a risk of the repercussions from low test scores.

“As an educator, I am evaluated on those test results,” she said. “More and more, it feels like these results are being used to penalize educators rather than to improve instruction or drive professional development… The underlying message to professional educators from all these testing requirements that have emanated from the federal level and the resulting push for further reforms at the state level is that policymakers don’t trust that teachers and school officials are doing their jobs.”

Scanlon left the committee with his thoughts on what needs to be done in order to improve the state’s failing education system.

“We can do better — we have to do better,” he said. “It’s time to step back and look at what we’ve done. The solution needs to be found with educators and business people at the table. I also believe we need to empower local school districts — with oversight and guidelines — to make decisions about graduation requirements and how to measure student progress toward the Pennsylvania State Standards.”

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