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Pennsylvania Department of Education considers changes to testing, accountability measures

Jamie Martines
| Monday, March 20, 2017, 6:30 p.m.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education hopes to alleviate testing pressure on students and teachers as the state prepares an education plan in compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, a top department official told lawmakers Monday.

“There was a lot of talk when ESSA was passed that this provides more authority and autonomy to states and is a significant move from No Child Left Behind,” Deputy Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Matthew Stem testified before a joint hearing of the House and Senate education committees. “And while that's true, there are certain elements of No Child Left Behind which are still very much in place.”

The Obama administration in 2015 replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with ESSA. The new law gives states more freedom to select measures used to determine whether a school is successful and strategies used to support low-performing schools.

ESSA still requires annual statewide testing in third through eighth grades, as well as once at the high school level across three subject areas. But the department hopes to use the opportunity to write a new state education plan to reduce the amount of time spent on standardized tests and to eliminate double testing for middle school Algebra I students, who must sit for the Keystone Algebra I exam as well as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA, math exam, Stem said.

Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County, questioned the financial impact of standardized testing.

“Explain to me how the vast sums of money — that you're measuring things, but we're not helping anyone in the classroom go forward,” Dinniman said.

He encouraged the department to consider why students fail and address those needs, such as access to mental health support, social services or breakfast programs.

Stem said department officials agree that schools must fix the “root causes” of students' failure. That is why they are working to make changes in the system, he said.

Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster County, pressed Stem on testing, asking about the correlation between a student's performance on standardized tests and success in college or the workforce.

While the Education Department does not have this information, Stem said it is making an effort to collect and analyze what data is available.

“It's just not enough to expect our schools to graduate students,” Stem said, adding that what students are accomplishing after graduation must be considered.

In addition to selecting from a menu of academic indicators of success, such as students' performance on standardized tests, ESSA requires states to incorporate non-academic indicators of school quality, of the state's choosing, into accountability plans. For example, states could choose to evaluate school safety, students' social and emotional health, college and career readiness or accessibility to advanced course offerings.

While this gives states the opportunity to take a more holistic approach to determining whether a school is successful, data on these factors can be difficult to collect and compare across students and schools, said Julie Woods, policy analyst with the nonpartisan nonprofit Education Commission of the States.

Claire Voorhees, director for K-12 reform at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, advised lawmakers to consider accountability measures that are comprehensive but also straightforward enough that parents, students and educators can understand them and learn something from the information.

“Can a principal explain to a parent, walking through the hall, what the system is?” said Voorhees, who offered testimony on behalf of the reform-focused organization.

Lawmakers expressed concern about how policy shifts at the federal level could impact how Pennsylvania moves forward with ESSA planning. The state is required to submit a plan to the federal government in September but will make a draft available to the public over the summer, Stem said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last week released a new template for state plans with fewer requirements, particularly in regard to how states should involve stakeholders such as school districts, employers or higher education institutions in developing the plan. The template scrapped regulations on how states decide to count subgroups of students, such as English-language learners or students in special education, in school performance data.

The Education Commission of the States, which provides insight and research on education policy, advises lawmakers to “stay the course on state plans, focus on the letter of the law, because obviously the regulations are a little bit in flux,” Woods said.

Stem said the state Department of Education does not believe the new template will impede progress on planning in Pennsylvania.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867 or at jmartines@tribweb.com.

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