Penn­syl­va­nia has come up with yet an­other plan to im­prove pub­lic schools, but some ex­perts are skep­ti­cal

The Times-Tribune - - Capitol Watch - BY SAM JANESCH CAPI­TOL WATCH

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 plan

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.

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