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Mon-Yough area school officials voice opinions on assessment testing

Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 3:46 a.m.

As Pennsylvania System of School Assessment testing dates approach in Mon-Yough area districts, some administrators consider the evaluations to be necessary evils in the education system.

While students in Elizabeth Forward schools are refreshing their PSSA-prep skills like kids in any other district — competing in classroom games, reviewing content in reading and math, or playing with apps on their district-issued iPads — Superintendent Bart Rocco is among those taking a stand against PSSA testing methods and PA Core Standards.

“In different districts and different regions, there are socioeconomic issues that impact children's performance on these tests,” Rocco said.

Whether it's early exposure to literature or practicing early math with toys and snacks, Rocco explained, children from more affluent backgrounds have a better educational foundation.

“These tests are creating a larger gap between the haves and the have-nots,” Rocco said. “All of these kids take the same PSSA. Is there a fairness to that?”

Rocco is calling for more equity among Pennsylvania's 500 public school districts, including an equal distribution of funding to aid in achieving it.

West Mifflin Area Superintendent Daniel Castagna views looming PA Core standards, the math and reading elements of which were finalized March 1, as unfunded mandates that are putting economically disadvantaged districts at a further setback.

“Your district is left to meet a new set of standards to be judged on,” Castagna said. “These changes are so different, and they don't fund it. There's no money to support it, but it's on you.”

While he believes it is important to have curriculum guidelines, Castagna said it is unfair to evaluate schools on benchmarks rather than measuring progress.

Castagna was hopeful that new School Performance Profiles, which include factors outside the realm of standardized testing, could change how progress is measured in Pennsylvania. However, he was disappointed when school performance maintained its richest-to-poorest lineup.

“They didn't fix anything,” Castagna said. “They came up with new variables, but the results are the same. If it continues to fall like that, it's a flawed system.”

The Department of Education contends that School Performance Profiles reveal trends that are not economically based.

“There are poor school districts out there with excellent achievement, but there are also schools that are looked at as wealthy that aren't performing well,” said Tim Eller, director of press and communications at the state Department of Education. “It's not about money — not the amount of money. It's how that money is used and strategically invested in the district to grow students.”

Rocco said there are many critics of modern education reform, including former No Child Left Behind advocate Diane Ravitch, who now calls the national measure “a law that inflicts damage on students, teachers, schools and communities.”

By stressing over PSSAs or any test-based accountability method, educators across the nation are missing their mark or “not seeing the bigger picture,” Rocco said. “We should be focusing on how to achieve equality in education.”

Castagna referred to the PSSAs as a “necessary evil.”

“It's something we realize we have to do, and we try to make the best of the situation by making it fun,” he said. “We push for attendance. We outline what good effort on the PSSA looks like and what it means to test well.”

While PSSA preparation is built into the West Mifflin Area curriculum, Castagna said, the district doesn't shape its overall educational climate for the sake of one test.

Regardless of whether districts are for or against the PSSA testing method or the state standards upon which they are based, Clairton director of curriculum Debra Maurizio said standardized assessment is a reality that all districts must face.

“The standards are there,” she defended. “And this March window is the time of year when all students across Pennsylvania are taking the same assessment. Throughout the rest of the year, the assessments may vary from classroom to classroom or district to district.”

Strides have been made in measuring education, Maurizio noted, with the implementation of the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System, which measures schools' growth in addition to their achievement.

“Every district has students at varied levels when they walk through the door, whether they are entering kindergarten or transferring from other districts,” she explained. “Teachers are making sure that every student is given, at the minimum, a year's worth of growth or more (in each passing school year).”

With PSSA results now affecting educator effectiveness evaluations in addition to district ratings, Duquesne acting Superintendent Barbara McDonnell said the tests are becoming more meaningful in the classroom.

“There is a piece at stake for our staff,” she said.

With teachers and parents encouraging students to take PSSA tests seriously because they reflect on the district, McDonnell asked if the tests will some day have a reflection on students' grades.

Eller said standardized testing holds more weight at the secondary level with Keystone Exams now being a graduation requirement.

“Students themselves will have a vested interest in performing well on those exams, because it impacts whether they graduate,” he explained. “The PSSA students don't have skin in the game, so to speak. But the state has started that process with the Keystone Exams — not only holding educators accountable, but holding students accountable as well.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or



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