A Penny For Your PSSA Test Thoughts

26 Jul

Reflections of an Author

Submitted by Frank Murphy on July 26, 2011

Not long after Congress passed the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, I attended a principals’ meeting where a regional staffer briefed us on the future implications of this new piece of legislation.   Schools in districts across the state had been participating in the administration of the PSSA test for several years prior to this new federal accountability mandate.  At that time, test results for the three grades being assessed (grades 5,8, and 11), were reported back to individual districts simply as average scale scores for each of their schools.  With NCLB, all students in grades 3- 8 and grade 11 would now be required to take the PSSA.  This would be phased in over a few years to give the state time to develop tests at each grade level. NCLB also dramatically changed the manner in which states and school districts would be expected to communicate test results to the public.  From this point forward, scoring bands labeled Advanced and Proficient were introduced to describe those students considered to be demonstrating academic achievement that was on grade level or above expectations.  For those students who did not do as well on the test, the labels Basic or Below Basic were applied.

In addition to school averages by grade level, test results would be reported according to special subgroups, including economically disadvantaged, race, special education and English language proficiency. For a school to receive the designation of making Adequate Yearly Progress, it must meet or exceed each of its performance targets.  If even one of its subgroups did not meet its target, the school would be designated as a failure. The eventual goal/requirement of NCLB was for every student in the nation to minimally achieve the scoring band of Proficient.

When I first heard the descriptions of the various expectations and sanctions detailed in NCLB, the “gotcha” provisions of this law took me back. In particular, I thought the notion that all children in America’s public schools, regardless of specific learning differences and/or language background, would score at the Proficient and Advanced levels of their state test, was purely absurd.

I didn’t dwell too long on my annoyance over this political interference in the operations of our public schools.  It seemed likely, or so I thought, that NCLB would go quickly into the dustbin of ill-conceived school efforts.  Additionally, it would have no effect on the operation of my school for a while.  At that time, Meade Elementary School served children in grades Kindergarten through fourth grade.  These had not been tested grades on the PSSA.

My indifference to the demands of NCLB was short-lived.  The year after that fateful principals’ meeting, a fifth grade class was added to Meade as the process to transform the school into a K-8 configuration was initiated.  This was a grade level that did participate in the PSSA test at that time.  It also become apparent that the unreasonable demand for 100% of students to achieve at the Proficient and Advanced levels was one that wasn’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

The premise that a school’s success or failure should be determined solely on the results of a single standardized test has easily been sold to the American public.  It is an engineered idea that cynically takes advantage of the inability of many people to make sense of sophisticated statistical information. The authors of the accountability elements of NCLB have not put forth a well-reasoned and researched argument in making their case for how to hold schools accountable.  Instead they have relied heavily on manipulating the feelings of people in order to sell an agenda that is primarily focused on undermining the credibility of public schools.

The highly charged emotional nature of this high stakes testing game was made apparent to me several years later.  I was participating in the District’s yearly summer professional development session for its principals.  We had just returned from lunch and reconvened with our assigned breakout groups.  The facilitator decided to start the session with an icebreaker activity.  She handed a penny to one of the participants.

“I want you to pass this coin from one person to another.  When you have it in your hand, tell the group whatever thoughts it brings to your mind.”

The first person said, “I see the face of Abraham Lincoln and I think of his great contributions in making this nation one that respects the rights of all people”.

The penny was handed off to the next person who took note of the date on the coin.

“ Nineteen eighty-three: that was the year my daughter was born”.

From hand to the hand, the penny was passed.  Comments were made about its shape and color.  The commentary was light and perfunctory until one principal half way around the table captured everyone’s attention.

In a halting voice, the principal said,  “During lunch I checked my e-mail.  The Office of Accountability has sent out a message that contains the PSSA results for our schools.  As I hold this penny, it reminds me of the tiny margin by which my school missed making AYP this year.  Our reading scores for our special education sub group were 1% less than our target”.

The principal then began to cry.  There was an awkward silence at the table that seemed to last for an eternity.  The facilitator quickly transitioned to a discussion of the objectives of the afternoon’s activities.  The devastated principal dabbed a tissue at the corner of her eyes and attempted to recompose herself.

“Wow!” I thought.  How could someone allow the results of the PSSA to become such an emotionally overwhelming experience?  The pain and sorrow that I observed in this principal disturbed me.  What good ever comes from shaming and embarrassing people as a means to force them to pursue an unreasonable goal?

It is no wonder that some educators have recently been accused of engaging in unethical behavior.




  1. I Teach in Philly

    July 26, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    I wonder if the prinicpal’s reaction was from disappointment, frustration or fear of repercussion.

    A list of just some of the effects of these high-stake tests:
    -A school or district can lose funds if they don’t make AYP.
    -Because PSSAs have become the be-all and end-all for their schools, teachers can be shamed, bullied and sometimes forced to abandon lessons so they can teach test-prep instead.
    -Administrators may be demoted or promoted based on those scores
    -A child’s self-image can be hurt by being labeled “below basic” based on one single test.
    -Students get lopsided educations when non-tested subjects such as foreign language or geography are neglected so more time can be spent on prepping for the test

    PSSA was intended to help educators and students. Instead, too much emphasis has been placed on that one test while ignoring other indicators of student learning.

  2. PhiladelphiaTeacher

    July 27, 2011 at 7:09 am

    If you think that principal was upset, think how the kids felt, being labeled BASIC or BELOW BASIC.

  3. Anonymous

    July 27, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Is this an excuse as to why Meade shows up on the 2009 erasure report?

  4. fmurphy

    July 27, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    I assume that you are referring to the erasure analysis files included in this Notebook post.

    Meade School is referred to in this report only in the third grade category.

    There were three third grade-reading tests flagged. This represents 7% of the total test scored in this subject.

    In Math there were two tests flagged. This represents 5% of the total third grade tests scored.

    It is highly probable that these very small numbers of test booklets, which contain wrong to right erasures, are a result of students misaligning their response on the answer grid. This is even more likely the case in third grade where students are taking the test for the first time.