Understanding the Issues Impacting Public Education in the Commonwealth and the Fox Chapel Area School District
Part 1: PSSAs and Keystone Exams
The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams are required by the state to be administered to students in grades three through eight in the subject areas of math and English Language Arts (ELA). Children in grades four and eight also take the science PSSA. Additionally, middle school and high school students take Keystone Exams, end-of-course assessments designed to assess proficiency in the subject areas of algebra, literature, and biology. Originally, the Keystones were developed and administered as part of a statewide graduation requirement, which was expected to be implemented this school year. However, the General Assembly has decided to delay using the Keystones as a graduation requirement until the 2018-2019 school year, passing legislation asking the Pennsylvania Department of Education to conduct a study on the future of Keystone Exams. These recommendations are awaiting action in the General Assembly.
Implications for the Fox Chapel Area School District:
Standardized testing plays a necessary role in ensuring a rigorous, quality education for children, but state-mandated tests also create numerous challenges for districts. Chief amongst those are the amount of time and money dedicated to testing. While the state covers much of the costs associated with the tests, local school districts bear much of the direct and associated costs such as loss of teaching time. Because the scores carry implications for school rankings, which can ultimately impact property values, administrators and teachers allot considerable resources to ensuring that children can “show” what they know. Additionally, a component of teacher evaluations stems from PSSA/Keystone results. For elementary and middle school children, testing encompasses a part of each day for up to three weeks each spring causing disruption to normal classroom routines and cessation of the normal academic curriculum. Because scores are not released by the state until the following October, the usefulness of the results is greatly diminished as a meaningful teaching tool for students. Furthermore, middle school students who complete courses associated with Keystone Exams must still take PSSA tests. For example, an eighth grade Algebra I student must not only take the Keystone, but also the math PSSA. Currently, these exams do not align which means the same student may pass one and fail the other.
PSSAs and Keystone testing can be viewed as high-stakes tests. To guard our students from the pressure and negative outcomes associated with high-stakes testing, the Fox Chapel Area School District has invested district funds in a benchmarking tool called STAR 360. This tool provides data that is generally reflective of a student’s expected performance on PSSAs and the Keystones. But unlike the three weeks associated with PSSA testing, STAR testing takes only about four hours annually with the feedback being immediate to guide instruction.