News

PSSAs: Few 'proficient' students in Franklin County, but districts look to future

Written by Jim Hook, Public Opinion Online | Oct 19, 2015 3:00 PM

(Harrisburg) -- Scores tanked this year on a major assessment test given to elementary and middle school students across the state. 

PSSAScoresGraph2_400.jpg

Franklin County school districts were no exception in the revamped 2014-15 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment testing.

Educators are not measuring their performance by comparing their schools' scores this year to last year's. In fact, the state Department of Education has delayed using PSSA scores in calculating the overall performance of schools and evaluating instructors.

On the surface the PSSA results are unnerving. About 60 percent of students in Pennsylvania schools are not proficient in math, 40 percent are not in language arts and a third fail the science test. Compared to last year, students in grades three to eight scoring "advanced' or "proficient" dropped by 35 percentage points in math and 9 percentage points in language arts.

In a letter to parents the state Department of Education said: "It is not useful to directly compare students' scores on the new assessment to students' scores from previous assessments because they are aligned to different standards."

While the latest PSSA promises to be a benchmark, it has plenty of data for educators to use today. This year, the thumbnail performance standard is comparing a school district or school to the state average:

• "We were pleased our scores throughout the district were better than the state average," Greencastle-Antrim School District Chief Educational Officer Robert Crider said.

• "The thing we're most pleased about is that we are trending with the state," said Susan Breslin, English language arts supervisor for Chambersburg Area School District.

• "There is no question we have work to do. Most districts do," said Crystal Lautenslager, CASD director of educational programming. "We are narrowing the gap between our performance and the state's, and that is good news."

Educators can pick apart students' answers to test questions to reveal skill sets and grade levels where teachers need to focus more attention. They can make changes at the districtwide level or tailor them to individual teachers and students.

Local school districts are looking at the "best practices" in education. They already have initiated programs to improve the way students are taught. They caution it takes time to see results.

"We know as the tests get harder, we have to work harder," said Joseph Padasak, superintendent of Chambersburg Area School District. "It is important to understand that when major curriculum changes occur, it takes time to adjust and to learn."

"One year is not enough to assimilate the changes for administrators, teachers and students," Lautenslager said. "It's going to take several years to see growth we've seen from the last test."

"The test is a recalibration of what we expect kids to do," said Charles Prijatelj, superintendent of Tuscarora School District. "My goal as district superintendent is to assure growth of all students. They will be prepared to meet challenges in the remainder of their lives. It's a challenge. It's what makes education exciting. You need to embrace the challenge. Our kids have the ability to embrace the challenge."

The math and language portions of the 2015 PSSA were more rigorous than on previous PSSAs:

  • Fifth-graders read three passages, each by a different expert on eagles, then answered questions requiring the students to integrate and compare what they read.
  • Third-graders no longer simply identified polygons to answer a question. They solved a problem requiring a knowledge of polygons and fractions.
  • Eighth-graders explained how they arrived at math answers that don't always come out to round numbers.
  • The language test placed much more emphasis on non-fiction reading, rather than literature.

"Look at increased complexity of the questions asked on the test," said Matt Strine, assistant superintendent of the Shippensburg Area School District. "In real life, questions aren't simple. We want students to handle messiness in school, and out in the real world."

The latest PSSA compounded students' previous difficulties. Math problems required a higher level of thinking skills.

"Kids have to do more analysis," Prijatelj said. "They are making educated judgement calls. They have to analyze and justify. The test is very reading dependent."

Shippensburg's Strine said, "Areas that need work are areas that needed work previously --reading and literacy."

Strine expects Shippensburg to score big gains on the PSSA in three to five years. The district already improved this year compared to the state average, after a couple of static years.

Strine said the district has been improving collaboration, instructional delivery and curricula. Teachers and administrators visit classes, then give a diagnosis and offer a treatment for any ills. Middle school teachers have opened up their classes for other instructors to drop in.

"The chances and opportunity for teachers to go across the hall have been very slim," Strine said. "This gives them a chance to peek in someone else's classroom, which they probably haven't had since they were student teachers."

Some teachers participate in regular Twitter chats about lesson planning, he said.

"We have a core group of teachers who are really excited about what they are doing," Strine said.

The district also is scheduling an education camp this summer where teachers throughout the area can get together, identify topics of interest and facilitate the discussion about them. A local version was successful last year.

GASD is concentrating on its math curricula, Crider said. A committee of teachers reviewed six new science programs and selected three to pilot this school year. The committee will review the results in spring and select one to launch next school year.

"Our current math series is 8 years old and based on the standards of that time," Crider said.

The state board of education in the fall of 2013 adopted the Pennsylvania Core Standards Aligned System, the first revision in 10 years as part the nationwide movement to Common Core. The standards are more strict than the state's previous academic standards.

"We have aligned our curriculum in English language arts and math to the PA Standards," Lautenslager said. "Most ELA teachers have been working with it for two years and in math for the past year. We understand that the PA Aligned Standards are purposefully more rigorous to better prepare students for college or a career. However we realize that this is just one measure of a student's progress in school."

Schools check on their students through other standardized tests that can be given as often as four times a year.

"Everybody will tell you a single measure given one time is not valid," Prijatelj said. "In life we deal with many-one-and-done assessment tests - your driving test, the PSAT, the bar exam, a welding test. So it's a measure of performable skills. Our kids are going to experience do-or-die on a test. I'm not opposed to the PSSA or the Keystone Exams because the kids are going to experience similar situations. I'd like to think they work hard enough so when the time comes they can say: I know what I'm doing."

Districts by the numbers

Students in third through eighth grades will be taking home their PSSA test results, if they haven't done so already.

Educators caution parents not to compare the results to PSSA results from previous years. There's a new standard.

Parents should consider their child's grades and other test results to check their child's academic growth.

Local school administrators encourage parents to meet with their child's instructors if they have questions about the test or test results.

Test scores are ranked as below basic, basic (needing work), proficient and advanced.

Of the area's six school districts, Chambersburg and Fannett-Metal school districts scored at or below the state average.

Districts judge success by looking at the number of students who score proficient or advanced. An average of 40 percent of students across the state scored proficient or advanced in math. The local school district averages were 49 percent in Waynesboro, 45 percent in Greencastle-Antrim, 44 percent in Shippensburg, 42 in Tuscarora, 35 percent in Chambersburg and 34.2 in Fannett-Metal.

An average of 60 percent of students across the state scored proficient or advanced in English language Arts. The local district averages were 69 percent in Greencastle-Antrim, 66 percent in Waynesboro, 63 percent in Tuscarora, 60 percent in Chambersburg, and 57 percent in Shippensburg and Fannett-Metal.

Scores within an individual school district can vary widely. At Stevens Elementary School in Chambersburg Area School District, 5 percent of fifth-graders scored proficient or advanced in math compared to 42 percent at Falling Spring. The comparison was similar in PSSA reading results, 38 percent of Stevens fifth-graders were at least proficient compared to 78 percent at Falling Spring Elementary.

PSSA data for individual schools and general information is available at http://bit.ly/1NMUgER.

Jim Hook can be reached at 717-262-4759.


This article comes to us through a partnership between Public Opinion Online and WITF. 

 

Published in News

Tagged under , ,

back to top

Post a comment

Give Now

Estate Planning

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Smart Talk

National Edward R. Murrow Awards

DuPont Columbia Awards

Support Local Journalism

Latest News from NPR

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »