Pennsylvania has come up with yet another plan to improve public schools, but some experts are skeptical
Educators, advocates and policy analysts are excited for Pennsylvania’s version of a federal overhaul of education policy. They say it moves the state in the right direction by putting less emphasis on testing and instituting better accountability standards.
But as the state Department of Education prepares to ship its plan off to its federal counterpart for approval, questions remain over whether the state plan goes far enough to reduce testing and reach its goals.
And in a recurring theme here, advocates say Pennsylvania’s inadequate funding of public schools is a very real threat to the new plan’s success.
“Underlying all of it is the assumption that there’s enough funds to do these things well, and in my opinion that’s just not true in Pennsylvania,” said Ed Fuller, an associate professor of educational leadership at Penn State’s College of Education.
The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in December 2015, replacing the President George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind, which parents and educators felt placed too much emphasis on standardized testing.
Under the new act, every state must come up with its own implementation plan. Pennsylvania’s 18-month endeavor resulted in the release of the Pennsylvania State Consolidated Plan in August.
After receiving 443 public comments, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is now working to review those comments, said department spokeswoman Casey Smith, and it will “revise and refine” the 144-page draft plan before the U.S. Department of Education’s Monday deadline.
Minus any surprises, the state will submit an extensive report that overhauls the way schools and teachers are held accountable, sets goals for student proficiency and graduation rates, and establishes priorities for long-term education policy for the state’s 1.7 million students.
The Wolf administration will also reduce the amount of time students spend taking statewide exams. It will cut one 48-minute section of math and one 45-minute section of English Language Arts on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test for grades three through eight.
“We think this plan takes an important step in the right direction for Pennsylvania students and educators,” said David Broderic, spokesman for Pennsylvania State Education Association.
For anti-testing crusaders, the slashing of sections on the PSSA appears to be welcome news. “This is something we have been advocating for for years,” said Broderic.
Susan Spicka, a Shippensburg school board member and director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit group Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said her organization is enthusiastic about the plan, which she says makes testing less “high stakes” than it’s been.
“It removes a lot of pressure on teachers to make sure the test is the focus,” she said.
There’s nothing wrong with tests, she said, except when they become the “full measure of the school’s value.”
She said that becomes evident when teachers spend more time on testing because they know it’s how they’ll be evaluated. Spicka is confident teachers will now be able to move away from that philosophy.
But even the most enthusiastic supporters maintain some doubts. Nearly every stakeholder and analyst reached by The Caucus said Pennsylvania was moving “in the right direction” with testing, but they stopped short of endorsing that direction as going “far enough.”
They say part of the problem is a misperception about how much time in test preparation will be saved by a slight reduction in actual test-taking time.
“People think taking one section off the math test is going to magically make the time spent on testing go down dramatically, but that’s not how it’s going to play out,” said Fuller. “It’ll reduce the amount of time a little bit.”
It will also shorten the science section by 22 minutes.
Students can spend months preparing for a test that only takes a few minutes to take. And even though ESSA pulls back the amount of weight given to the tests, Fuller said “the accountability system in some sense forces the hand to do a lot of preparation.”
Craig Hochbein, a professor of educational leadership at Lehigh University’s College of Education, also said he’s not sure that the emphasis on the tests themselves has decreased all that much. And if the stakes are still as high, would teachers eliminate the time to prepare for them?
“I’m not exactly sure we’ve seen a dramatic shift in these policies,” Hochbein said.
Testing may be the clearest and most public change, but the ESSA modification to accountability standards may be the part of the plan that is most likely to make an impact, analysts argue.
Particularly pleasing for many who have viewed Pennsylvania’s plan is its use of two metrics to identify schools that are performing poorly and in need of assistance — achievement and growth.
They are being considered together for the first time: achievement, which is the generally understood method of evaluating schools based on students’ test scores, and growth, which will now evaluate schools based on how they improve individual student performance over time.
Brandon Wright is an analyst for the conservative-leaning, Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he co-authored a report in July that rated the 17 state ESSA plans that had already been released and submitted to the federal government.
The study focused exclusively on the new accountability standards, and it zeroed in on the factors of student growth and student achievement. If Pennsylvania had been included, he said it would have earned strong marks.
“Pennsylvania gives equal weight to achievement and growth, which is a good thing, and they deserve credit for weighing growth heavily,” Wright said.
Student growth metrics are important, Wright and others say, in part because it will give schools with more lower-performing students credit for improvements over time rather than punish them for not reaching a certain level of proficiency.
Many observers relate this to lowincome school districts that may start further behind wealthier districts in which students come in with better chances of performing well.
“That gap starts in kindergarten and persists all the way through 12th grade,” Wright said of the achievement gap between wealthy and low-income districts.
Goals and funding
While testing and accountability have been the subjects of extensive debate, the end goal is unquestionable: student success.
In the ESSA plan, the Wolf administration aims to cut in half the percentage of students not proficient in the PSSAS and increase the four-year high school graduation rate from 84.8 percent to 92.4 percent by 2030.
It also looks to increase proficiency levels in math and English, and increase career and technical education enrollment.
Former House Rep. Ron Cowell said he believes the short-term and longterm objectives are “very modest.”
As president of the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center, a nonprofit policy research organization, he said it’s “effectively saying 12 years from now we expect to be in a situation where 40 percent of students aren’t proficient.”
Cowell thinks Pennsylvania could aim higher. But what worries him isn’t so much the aim as it is the means to get there.
“Even with these modest goals, the accomplishment of the goals is hindered very much by a terrible school funding system that we have in Pennsylvania,” said Cowell.