By JENNIFER FITCH
9:25 PM EDT, October 24, 2011
Franklin County, Pa., public schools are working to improve students’ performance on state exams as they approach a requirement that all students test at grade level by 2014.
PSSA exams are administered to 2.6 million students across the state each spring to assess proficiency in math, reading, science and writing.
“PSSAs are important because they give us an indication of the achievement in a class of students related to the state standards. What they don’t test is attitude,” said Evan Williams, Waynesboro Area School District’s assistant superintendent.
PSSA testing in reading and math is the primary component of determining whether a school or district made “adequate yearly progress,” a classification under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The initiative calls for all students to be proficient in math and reading at their grade levels by 2014.
In September, the White House outlined ways for states to get relief from No Child Left Behind provisions. The legislation has sustained criticism over the years that schools are teaching to the test.
“We want to get out of the way and give states and districts flexibility to develop locally tailored solutions to their educational challenges while protecting children and holding schools accountable for better preparing young people for college and careers,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a news release.
Pennsylvania’s continually increasing targets for student performance on PSSA tests jumped again for 2010-11. The 2010-11 combined targets for “advanced” and “proficient” classifications were 67 percent in math and 72 percent in reading.
The PSSA tests are given in grades three through eight, and in 11th grade. The test results apply to a school as a whole, but also to subgroups such as economically disadvantaged students, IEP students, racial/ethnic categories and English-language learners.
“Teachers are working hard; students are working hard. I believe our curriculum is aligned, but there are areas for improvement,” said Robert Crider, director of education for Greencastle-Antrim (Pa.) School District.
The middle and high schools in the Waynesboro Area and Greencastle-Antrim school districts are on state warning lists for missing targets. Both districts met proficiency requirements as a whole.
In Greencastle-Antrim, special-education students in the middle school missed their math targets. The high school’s 11th-graders missed a math target.
In Waynesboro, the middle school’s special-education students missed their reading targets. They’re now using iPads with special software in an effort to boost their reading comprehension.
“They just work wonders,” Williams said of the iPads’ programs.
Waynesboro Area Senior High School’s 11th-grade students failed to reach a math benchmark.
“We improved in reading at the high school, but we didn’t do as well as last year in math,” Williams said.
Williams said he feels college-bound high school students focus more on the SATs than PSSAs. He said some students might not take the PSSA test seriously because they know there are other options for them to meet graduation requirements.
Greencastle-Antrim is adding a classroom diagnostic tool to determine throughout the year if individual students are meeting benchmarks. Waynesboro will be using the same tool.
“There’s always a concern with reaching a plateau ... but over the past few years, we’ve shown slow, steady growth,” Crider said.
Crider said he and other school officials are waiting to learn if Pennsylvania is awarded a waiver to No Child Left Behind requirements. They’re also hoping the state replaces PSSAs with Keystone Exams, which would test students at the end of a course on their knowledge of that course’s content.
As of now, Williams said the Class of 2015 will be the first using Keystone Exams to measure proficiency across the state. The Keystone Exams will be available in topics like Algebra I and biology, the latter of which Williams said is a very difficult exam.
Crider said he believes it would be more fair to assess students in several content areas, rather than math and reading.
“We are certainly trying to educate the whole child, but when you’re publicly judged on those two areas, you spend a lot of time on them,” he said.
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