11th-graders fall short in state assessment test
Half of Pennsylvania's 11th-graders didn't achieve state math standards, 40 percent of them fell short of reading standards and about a third didn't make the standard in writing, according to state test scores from last school year.
From the Valley, percentages of students who fell short of the state standards are only slightly better than those of the state.
Some 122,000 Pennsylvania 11th-graders took the three Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests last school year, mostly in April.
Students in other grades also took the tests, but this year's high school seniors arguably have the most at stake because this is the first year the results will become part of a student's record, local superintendents say. Prior to this, students and parents were notified of their scores but there was no permanent record of their test score.
Also, the tens of thousands of Pennsylvania 11th-graders who didn't make the standard were eligible to take a retest last month to try to boost their scores.
Few did. High school students don't have an incentive to take the retest, according to several local superintendents.
"Most school districts haven't made it (the PSSA) a graduation requirement, and it doesn't affect employment or college admissions," said Charles Territo, superintendent of the Allegheny Valley School District.
Of Allegheny Valley's 11th graders who took the PSSA last year, 48 percent didn't make the math standard and 41 percent didn't make the reading standard. That was relatively close to the average for school districts across the Valley.
Allegheny Valley will try to get more students to make the mark, but administrators aren't in crisis mode, Territo said.
One goal is to make sure what's being tested on the PSSA aligns with what's being taught in the classroom. Another goal will be getting students to take the test seriously, which is a challenge in many schools, Territo said.
Wednesday's release of scores were Pennsylvania's first milepost on the path toward aligning with national education standards.
Under President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, all students must meet the standards by the 2013-14 school year. In Pennsylvania, that means students must start scoring at the proficient or advanced levels, which isn't happening now.
"I think it's cause for concern," said Beth Gaydos-Williams, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. "We pride ourselves on having high academic standards. It should really send a message to (teachers, principals and parents) that we don't want to be producing students who are reading, writing and learning math at basic levels, and that's one reason for the PSSA."
Gaydos-Williams said Pennsylvania school administrators should be asking, how can we change our curriculum so this doesn't keep happening•
For the second year, the test results puts students in four categories: Advanced, proficient, basic and below basic. Only advanced and proficient levels of achievement are considered to be meeting state standards. Eleventh-graders who scored at those levels will get a certificate of recognition, Gaydos-Williams said.
But there's an ideological battle raging over the test.
The state's largest teachers' union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, has challenged the legitimacy of the state-established PSSA proficiency scores, arguing the state Education Department has set the levels arbitrarily high in order to trigger state intervention, takeover and privatization of school districts.
Also, PSEA researchers believe the Education Department set the proficiency scores at levels which would label as "basic" or "below basic" many students who score high on other tests, such as the SAT test given to college-bound students.
"This is about setting inappropriate standards, and by doing that we're setting students and their schools up for failure," said Wythe Keever, a PSEA spokesman.
The department disagrees, citing that teachers working from across Pennsylvania determined the four performance levels, according to Gaydos-Williams.
Another criticism: The PSSA hasn't been independently evaluated to see whether it is good at testing for standards knowledge. Gaydos-Williams said the state board of education is going forward with an independent validity study of the test in coming months.
Leechburg Area School Board member Chuck Pascal said he believes there may be a conservative agenda to the way the testing is carried out.
"What's on the test, how the questions are worded, what the passing score is can pretty much produce whatever outcome they want," said Pascal. "It is a political tool, and any district that 'teaches to the test' is doing educational malpractice."
However, Pascal conceded that if the PSSA results comport with what teachers are seeing in the classroom on tests, then maybe "we have to look at where we're teaching things."
He said the PSSA is one indicator that districts use to measure student progress, along with grades, attendance and senior projects.
As with most Valley schools, half of Leechburg Area's 11th-graders didn't make the math standard and 40 percent didn't make the reading standard.
"I interpret that as being probably above the state average," Pascal said. "We are performing as well as any other school district in Pennsylvania."
Plum School District's 11th-graders notched one of the best percentages in the Valley, especially in math, with two-thirds of students meeting state standards.
"Overall we're pleased with the results," said Assistant Superintendent Donald Teti. "It's not there yet because we still have some kids who aren't achieving what they should be achieving."
Teti sees no problem with "teaching to the test," or tweaking school programming to boost student understanding of the standards.
Teti, Territo and Pascal said they don't know of any school districts that have made the PSSA a graduation requirement.
The state Education Department doesn't keep track of how many school districts do this, said spokeswoman Gaydos-Williams, noting that only two districts she knew of make the PSSA a graduation requirement. Those school districts are in the central or eastern part of the state.