Tuesday, August 15, 2017

PA: Baby Steps on Testing

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced this week that schools in PA would be devoting less time to the Big Standardized Test (our version is the PSSA for elementary and middle school students, with the Keystone exams our test for high school juniors). Currently the BS Test sucks up about three weeks total in testing time; the new proposal is to reduce that time by at least 20%.

That's not a bad thing, but it's a baby step at best. This is positive news, but here's why I'm not doing a happy dance just yet.

Test Validity

Fewer test items means less actual measuring of whatever we're pretending to measure. State officials can either decide to pretend to measure fewer standards, or they can measure the same set of standards with even fewer test items, meaning that the measurement will be even less valid than it is now. I confess to not being super-agitated about this because the current PSSA and Keystone tests measure language skills only slightly more effectively than having students throw darts at a target while blindfolded.

None of that would be super-problematic except

High Stakes

These tests have no real stakes for students, but Pennsylvania still uses them to evaluate teachers and schools. The Keystones were supposed to be graduation exams, a la New York's regents, but they still aren't because the legislature still keeps deciding they're not yet ready to deny a bunch of otherwise graduation-ready seniors a diploma on the basis of a BS Test. So every spring at the high school level, we get to tell teenagers they have to take a long, boring standardized test that will not have any effect on them or their futures at all-- but which will determine whether we teachers and our school are any good, or not.

And mind you, this is in a state where some legislators are still determined to replace tenure with test-based job ranking.

Which is why

Test Prep Will Still Rule

Again, I absolutely applaud reducing the actual test-taking time by 20%. The testing days are absolutely intrusive and disruptive to the work of educating children. But they are not the only way in which the BS Tests have interrupted education. In fact, one could argue they aren't even the most time consuming.

As in many states, Pennsylvania has seen its classrooms infected by test prep. Let's do a few hundred practice exercises to get students thinking like the test manufacturers want them to think. Let's practice reading short, boring excerpts and then answers tricksy multiple choice questions about them. Let's spend day after day after day getting used to the kinds of things the test will ask us to do.

Does anybody think that this test prep practice will also be reduced by 20%? With the school and teachers' professional standing riding on the test-- the test that now has fewer questions carrying that same large weight?

No, I don't think so either.

As long as the BS Tests are high stakes, as long as they are a major instrument used to measure teacher and school effectiveness, they will remain a toxic time-sucking impetus for educational malpractice. Pennsylvania has taken a positive step, but they haven't solved the problem.

I suppose, as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So that's one baby step down, only 5,279,999.5 feet to go.

1 comment:

  1. It figures that the legislature wouldn't want to finally implement the graduation requirement for the Keystones, since they'd end up refusing diplomas to almost half the students in the state. I used to teach biology in PA (in Philly) and even three years ago we were wondering if they'd ever impose this on the class of 2017, which was supposed to be the first to have to meet the graduation requirement. At the time, slightly over 50% of students were not passing the biology Keystone and the supposed alternative project was clearly unworkable, since virtually all schools lacked the personnel to manage it. Why they won't just drop the thing or convert it into an end-of-course exam I don't know. Here in NC, we have state end-of-course exams for subjects like biology that must count as 20% of the student's course grade. It's still a BS test, but at least the state makes an attempt to align properly with the state standards and the students have a clear motivation to work at it without it being a pass-or-die situation. There are many things not to like about teaching in NC, but at least they managed to do testing better than many states.