Duquesne students, parents prepare for the PSSAs
Parents filled the student services room at Duquesne Education Center Tuesday morning to learn more about the upcoming test that will determine how local students are performing in terms of state standards.
Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests children in third through eighth grades on their English, language arts and mathematics skills. Students in fourth and eighth grade add science to the mix.
Based on student proficiency, the tests measure whether a district's curriculum and programming allow students to achieve the state's academic standards.
Tim Eller, director of press and communications at the state Department of Education, said PSSAs are intended to be one of several tools to measure student and district performance.
“Standardized testing is one measure, not the only measure, of how students are performing and how schools are educating students to (Pennsylvania's) academic standards,” Eller said. “The idea or the concept of standardized testing is to give the same equivalency to students across the state so that they are all tested on the same academic content.”
Duquesne, like many other Mon-Yough area schools, will begin to administer those tests next week.
Tuesday's gathering was an extension of a monthly breakfast program that encourages parent involvement throughout the school year. Teachers, instructional coaches, administrators and members of the PTA impressed on parents their role in sending test-ready students to school.
“The education of students is a collaborative effort between the school and the home,” said Stan Whiteman, assistant to the superintendent.
Parents including Lisa and Tennon Neal, who are putting their fifth child through the Duquesne City school system, said they understand their responsibility.
“We support her in everything she does,” Lisa Neal said, standing alongside her sixth-grade daughter Taleesa Neal. “Parents play a big role in children's education. We are in constant contact with her teachers.”
The district offered parents a packet of at-home study tools and tips to ensure children are ready to learn. Suggestions included guaranteeing students are getting enough sleep and nutritious foods.
“The most important thing you can do is encourage your children to take the test seriously,” instructional coach Jamie Schmidt told parents. “Most of the questions are based on information your children already know. They should be comfortable answering these questions.”
In Clairton, where parent involvement programs have been successful in recent years, pre-PSSA programming included elementary workshops in which parents took part in classroom lessons. There were ALARM bingo games that tested students' and parents' knowledge in animal science, language arts, all about us, reading and math in a casual setting.
Clairton administrators are taking the idea of student comfort a step beyond subject material with one-on-one conferences intended to gauge their state of mind as they approach PSSA testing dates.
“I always tell the kids they aren't alone on these days,” director of curriculum and federal programs Debra Maurizio said. “There are kids across Pennsylvania who are nervous or anxious about taking a high-stakes test.”
Under the direction of Superintendent Ginny Hunt, Clairton administrators are meeting with students to review the format of PSSA exams, which include multiple choice and open-ended questions.
“Sometimes it's just a confidence boost that students need to feel they can succeed,” Maurizio said.
Because students are up against a myriad of challenges as they build an educational foundation for their futures, Duquesne Superintendent Barbara McDonnell said districts have freedom to push the envelope in trying new educational tools that support their student body.
New in 2013-14, Duquesne students have been fitted with individual learning plans that monitor their strengths and weaknesses to achieve success efficiently. Teachers meet during weekly professional development sessions in which they compare and contrast best educational practices; in turn, those practices are measured on how students perceive them and achieve throughout their implementation.
If educators are aligning their teaching and testing methods to state standards, McDonnell said, PSSA exams should not be intimidating for students.
“These test-taking strategies are in place all year long,” she said.
South Allegheny director of curriculum Alisa King agreed that PSSA preparation is a yearlong process that can't begin within weeks of the testing period.
“We start on day one,” King said. “There has been a shift in not just preparing for the test, but in implementing instructional strategies over the course of the school year.”
There are changes in instructional strategies from the Early Childhood Center through South Allegheny High School, including curriculum changes geared toward the Common Core and changing the design of student schedules. Course offerings are being revised at the secondary level.
Maurizio said today's educational system is worlds apart from what many of today's adults experienced as children. And getting parents to understand what their children are learning is key to reinforcing educational values at home, she added.
“Things are very different for our families now,” Maurizio said. “If a parent is experiencing this for the first time with their children, their involvement and their education is very important.”
Because Common Core materials and high-stakes testing are newer concepts, Maurizio said, parents and grandparents have been appreciative of the school's willingness to work with families.
“Every single one could not have been more supportive of their children completing high school,” Maurizio said. “They know that a high school diploma is the key to continuing education at a four-year university or a technical school.”
Eller said education has been evolving since the dawn of time.
“We are now in the 21st century, where the economy and education are technologically based,” he said. “Students nowadays need to be critical thinkers. They need to be looking at problems as a whole, delving deep into the questions and being able to solve them.”
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.