The PSSA, a standardized test with a big impact
Melissa Welsh begins stressing the importance of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests six months before students put a No. 2 pencil to paper.
"For a school district, the test is very important," said Welsh, principal of Homeville Elementary School in the West Mifflin School District. "My main concern is that I want the kids to learn and teachers to be accountable."
The PSSA, a standardized test, measures students' reading, writing, math and science skills by grade level; forms of it are given, based on students' abilities. Reading and math tests are given statewide in grades three through eight and in grade 11. Writing skills are tested in grades five, eight, and 11; science, in grades four, eight and 11.
This year, math and reading tests are being given between March 12 and 23; writing between April 16 and 20; and science between April 23 and 27.
Since 1998, the test has been used to gauge school achievement. Beginning in 2005, the PSSA became the sole measure of a school district's compliance with former President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act under a standard known as adequate yearly progress, called AYP. Compliance determines the amount of state and federal funding the district will receive, and students must meet benchmarks to be granted a high school diploma from the state.
Some teachers and parents have criticized No Child Left Behind and the PSSA, saying the measures have led to emphasizing only information on the exam, since results are so crucial.
Pegging student achievement to a single test isn't fair, said Butch Santicola, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Educators Association, which represents nearly 200,000 public teachers and other education support employees.
"There's so much pressure on the schools now, they feel like they're teaching to a test," Santicola said. "Parents see the scores and if the students aren't performing, they say the teachers are not performing."
Generally, though, school officials said they try to integrate test-taking methods into routine instruction, and preparing students for the PSSAs means covering material required to be taught by the commonwealth's statewide curriculum.
Still, some districts conduct PSSA workshops on Saturdays and refresher courses after school. The efforts are particularly important where districts, or specific schools within a district, are not meeting benchmarks.
In Allegheny County, only Woodland Hills, Sto-Rox, McKeesport Area and Duquesne City have not met annual yearly progress, although individual schools elsewhere sometimes have been short.
In Plum, for example, high school administrators are working to increase 11th-grade math scores. The high school last year received a "warning" from the state because juniors did not achieve AYP in math.
High school principal Ryan Kociela told the school board in August that 60.8 percent of last year's 11th-graders scored at or above proficient on the math portion of the test. That's short of the target goal of 67 percent scoring at or above proficiency. The target for this year's class is 78 percent.
The district has implemented professional development, peer tutoring and a review of PSSA content and format to bring scores up.
Even in schools making adequate student progress, teachers and administrators work to stimulate students at test time.
Trying to keep the learning light
Last week, for the fourth year, students at Melissa Welsh's Homeville Elementary participated in a "March Madness PSSA Tournament." Activities included tie-dying shirts to break up the monotony of studying and "Jeopardy!"-type quizzes in the auditorium, with children answering questions displayed on a screen.
"We wanted to do something that was fun to keep them motivated," Welsh said. "Preparing for the test tends to get dull, kids get frustrated and bored. There's so much they have to prepare for."
In the Baldwin-Whitehall School district, Superintendent Lawrence Korchnak said teachers "prepare for the test, but don't teach to the test."
"I see the PSSAs and I recognize they're not the be-all and end-all. They're good because it measures an individual's efficiency and skill. It's very valid for what it's designed to do," he said.
A better barometer of district performance are tests that measure a student's growth from the beginning of the school year to the end, he said.
"It's unfair that schools aren't going to get this much money because some kids in some grades didn't have a good year," he said. "I accept the challenge of educating that child, but I think it's unfair to be evaluated on a single score."
Welsh said a flaw with PSSA is that it assesses in early spring all information students are supposed to acquire over the entire school year.
"It would be a lot easier if the test was given in May. We wouldn't have to jam everything in," she said.
For a link connecting to sample PSSA test questions click here.