In one of my many side jobs, I'm a columnist at a local paper. After some of us were sent off for training in PVAAS back in October of 2009, I wrote this piece. This is where Pennsylvania was with this business six years ago.
(News-Herald, October 22) This week I was schooled by the state about
more awesomeness that is Pennsylvania’s System of School Assessment
(the PSSA tests). This latest big vat of coolaid was served up,
ironically, in the Hemlock Room at IU6. When the state lowers itself to
send consultants to instruct the poor hicks who toil in local school
districts, there is always lots to learn.
For those of you still
following the PSSA’s, we are down to the crunch. Remember, No Child Left
Behind mandates that in four years, every single American school child
will test above average. Since this is only slightly more likely than
pigs flying out of Ed Rendell’s nose, the ever-benevolent state has
leapt to the rescue with—more statistical tools!
crunching is called the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System.
“Value Added” is a useful term from the manufacturing world. Simple
explanation: If I take a ten cent piece of sheet metal and turn it into a
two dollar widget, I’ve added a buck ninety’s worth of value.
that principle has to do with testing or educating students is not
clear, unless the state means to suggest that students are the same as
sheet metal and widgets. I was prepared to argue that point, but it
turns out that the state’s meaning is something else; words mean
whatever they want them to. And I can call my bicycle a stealth bomber.
uses a thousand points of data to project the test results for
students. This is a highly complex model that three well-paid
consultants could not clearly explain to seven college-educated adults,
but there were lots of bars and graphs, so you know it’s really good. I
searched for a comparison and first tried “sophisticated guess;” the
consultant quickly corrected me—“sophisticated prediction.” I tried
again—was it like a weather report, developed by comparing thousands of
instances of similar conditions to predict the probability of what will
happen next? Yes, I was told. That was exactly right. This makes me feel
much better about PVAAS, because weather reports are the height of
It was hard not to well up with that sort of
sarcasm during the indoctrination. We were there to copy numbers from
websites onto papers, as if the zillions of tax dollars had suddenly
crumped out before the developers could add the capability of printing
reports. The consultant veered between trying to bludgeon us with
jargon-filled gobbledegook and patronizing us with explanations of words
like “excelling” and “improving.” And assurances that if we just taught
what the state wants us to, everything will be great.
at the heart of the PSSA remains. A bunch of multiple choice questions
are a lousy measure of the reading skills of live humans. (The PSSA, we
were told, is not a standardized test. Okay. I’ll think about that while
I pedal my stealth bomber to the store.) You can run numbers through
statistical models all day, but if the numbers are near-meaningless to
start with, a massage doesn’t improve them.
The intent of the
state has not changed much since they first launched the
PSSA’s—Harrisburg wants to write the curriculum for every district in
the state. What has changed is their tone. Ten years ago they were still
trying to gently con us; now their contempt for local districts is
beginning to shine through. They are really tired of talking to all
these yokels; they would just as soon simply roll right over us and whip
us into shape.
So prepare next for the proposed Keystone Exams.
Students currently in 7th grade may face ten exit exams in order to
graduate. And because the state wants to wield a big hammer, the exams
will count for a full third of students’ final grades.
remains a two-handed slap in teachers’ faces. On the one hand, we’re
treated as if we are the problem and that schools need to be rescued
from us by brave bureaucrats and consultants. On the other hand, we are
pushed to do things that we know are professionally unsound. Imagine
suits going into hospitals and telling doctors, “You are making all
these people sick. Stop using pointy scalpels and start operating with
shovels.” High stakes multiple choice tests are bad education.
the final indignity is that after these sorts of sessions, one on one
in the hall, many of these consultants will freely admit that they’re
selling poisoned punch, but hey, they’re well paid and they’ve gotten
used to the taste.