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Have we reached a tipping point? A skeptic weighs in

By Ron Whitehorne on Aug 30, 2010 03:50 PM

Administering the PSSA at Julia de Burgos

AYP imageSuperintendent Arlene Ackerman, flanked by the governor and the mayor, has been on a public relations offensive this summer. Citing eight years of improved test scores and a dramatic rise in the number of schools that made AYP this year, the message is that the School District has reached, in the mayor’s words, a "critical tipping point.” Ackerman added, “To all the naysayers who say an urban school system can’t be successful: Watch Philadelphia!”

I’d like to be a believer. Students, teachers, and principals have all worked hard to achieve these gains. Urban public schools do get a bum rap from the media and the political establishment. But I can’t jump onto this bandwagon.

We have had a decade of single-minded focus on boosting PSSA test scores. The curriculum has been narrowed to focus on reading and math at the expense of other subjects, intensive test prep has been implemented focusing particularly on low-achieving schools, and the message has been sent to teachers and principals that their effectiveness will be measured by test results.

Given all this it would be surprising if there was not substantial improvement in test scores.

The question is what does it mean? The rosiest scenario is that for the first time more than half of Philadelphia’s students are proficient in reading and math. The bleakest assessment is that these scores are grossly inflated and gains are minimal at best.  My own view is somewhere in between.

There are a number of problems with the rosy view. One of them is the gap between the results on NAEP and the PSSA. NAEP, also known as the nation’s report card, is a widely respected standardized test that provides a basis for comparing the progress of different states and now cities as well.

The 2009 NAEP results for Philadelphia were for reading 10 percent in 4th grade, and 15 percent in 8th grade testing proficient and above. In math, 17 percent at the 4th grade level and 16 percent at the 8th grade level were proficient and above. All of these scores were substantially lower than the average large city scores (7 to 13 percent difference). It's also worth mentioning that statewide NAEP scores have been essentially flat over since 2007 while PSSA scores have gone up.

So why the big gap between NAEP and PSSA? Let’s look at a couple of possibilities.

Since each state has its own standards and develops its own assessment, there is a wide range in the quality of the tests. Simply put, some tests are much easier than others. In New York recently, where rising city test scores were widely heralded as a success story, the state decided it had set the bar too low. Many students who had scored as proficient were not really proficient at all. The city’s big gains suddenly evaporated.

Governor Rendell at the AYP party, insisted that couldn’t happen here. Pennsylvania, the guv said, has never dumbed down the PSSA. I didn’t find any evidence that he’s wrong. The state has tweaked the cut scores, the threshold for proficiency, for the PSSA over the years, but claims that this had no impact on test quality.

The standards on which the PSSA is based have come up for some serious criticism. Two reports, one by the AFT in 2008 and another by the Fordham Institute this year, rank PA's standards near the bottom of the heap, faulting the standards for vagueness, repetition, and lack of content.

Going forward, Pennsylvania has joined over thirty states in adopting the Common Core standards developed by the National Governor’s association, a move that should silence these critics. None of these reports, it should be noted, suggested that the PSSA was an easy test.

An issue that gets relatively little attention is the question of cheating. In Atlanta, another school district that has seen big test score gains, a cheating scandal has called these gains into question. Statistical evidence of tampering with answer sheets, has rocked the administration of Beverly Hall, 2009 Superintendent of the Year.

The administration of the PSSA is characterized by lax security and ample opportunities for cheating. Classroom teachers and administrators, who will be evaluated based on this test, administer it with minimal oversight.  We simply don’t know to what extent this a problem in Philadelphia. NAEP, by way of contrast, has rigorous security procedures and is administered by people who have no stake in the outcome.

A big factor is the systematic teaching to the test that characterizes instruction particularly in the Empowerment Schools. Students are drilled on how to answer both multiple choice and open-ended questions. Skills that are tested are taught and reviewed again and again, year after year. A large publishing industry of materials designed to boost test scores has developed. Apparently it pays off. The question here is what is the quality of this learning. Are the skills taught retained and integrated in some cognitive framework that is meaningful for the student?

Real learning is transferable so it is reasonable to assume that the skills students have gained will be reflected in the NAEP as well as the PSSA. Some explain the gap by suggesting students are much more motivated to make an effort on the PSSA.  Yes, students don’t get a pizza party for doing NAEP, but I’ve administered both tests many times and saw little observable difference in student effort.

While the NAEP-PSSA gap should concern us, the more fundamental question is should we be putting all our educational eggs in the single basket of any standardized test?

In the last decade the introduction of the core curriculum, the greater emphasis on math and literacy, all-day kindergarten, and the modest reductions in class size have all had positive results. Students are more literate and have a greater capacity for math than they had ten years ago and that’s a good thing, but the gains fall short of the hype and we certainly haven’t seen a revolution.

The down side is also clear – the narrowing of the curriculum and a constricting of the definition of student learning.  

Instead of continually celebrating test results, which only strengthens the tyranny of the test over urban education, the District needs to reconsider how to measure progress.

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Comments (34)

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on August 30, 2010 8:36 pm

Here's the latest for "empowerment" high schools. 9th - 11th grade social studies classes will have to use a reading program, Achieve 3000, two days per week. 9th and 10th grade science (Physical Science and Biology) will also have to use the program 2 days per week. (Yes, four days per week - why not just add another reading class.... and hire reading teachers to teach reading... ) The SDP stated the readings are aligned with the curriculum but they are not. Students will read "current events" which may be science or social studies related but teacher in "empowerment schools," unlike "magnet schools," will not teach a full week of social studies or science. This is a way to "infuse" reading class - test prep - while having students rosters look like they are taking a full year of science and social studies. Meanwhile, students will have a English and reading in 9th grade, unless they scored "advanced" on the PSSA. In 10th grade, students will have a reading program as part of their English class (Read 180).

So, the curriculum is narrowed to boost test scores. Would this "fly" in a "magnet" school????

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on August 31, 2010 9:05 am

 Thanks for this information as depressing as it may be.

Submitted by Anonymous teacher (not verified) on August 31, 2010 3:50 pm

Our high school (non-empowerment) is adopting Achieve 3000, and I'm actually interested in seeing how it will pan out. We won't be using it instead of other core classes (such as they way you mentioned) but rather as a class that many (most? I'm unclear about that) kids are assigned to. We had two different training sessions with it last spring, and to me it looks like the closest anybody has ever come to truly differentiating instruction based on reading level. The question will be, how will it actually be used in these classes? Will the students buy in, be interested, engaged, etc.? I'm willing to give it a try, since I'm very tired of having kids who read at a 3rd grade level in high school thrown in with kids who read at middle and high school levels (and beyond). This program claims to give the same articles to all the kids, but at every reading level from 1 to adult. I'm keeping an open mind about it at this point. (And no, I don't have any connection to the company that sells it.)

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on August 31, 2010 4:13 pm

I don't have a problem with Achieve 3000. I have a problem with using it during science and social studies core classes. It should be a reading "intervention" during a reading class. I also have no problem with Read 180 - I just don't think it should be "infused" with English 2. Read 180 needs to be implemented in it entirety.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 31, 2010 9:17 am

Thank you Ron for your insights. I have been discussing two of your points (NAEP scores and cheating) with my fellow teachers for years. I feel that any discussion of why test scores have gone up that takes a skeptical viewpoint is dismissed by the powers that be and leaves the skeptic open to accusations of racism ("Why don't you believe inner-city students can improve their test scores?")

I believe there is much cheating going on in Philly with PSSA tests. The secondhand stories I hear from my friends in education (including principals) leave little doubt. The inability, or lack of desire, of the SDP or PDE to look into accusations of cheating in depressing but not surprising when they both have powerful self-interest in not finding cheating. The ease in which teachers and administrators could cheat, in ways that no one but the most savvy of people could pick up on, is not commented on.

I will conclude with this thought. In the last 8 years in Philly, with 250 schools a year taking the PSSA, has their been even one reported accusation of test cheating? We must be the most honest and virtuous school district ever.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 31, 2010 1:48 pm

Why can't the students of PSD score well without cheating?? You must be a dishonest person yourself to keep accusing teachers/admin. of cheating. Unless you have personally witnessed what you attest to then you need to stop spreading your lies. I don't think teachers would risk their certificates for anything. If you are a Philly teacher you should be ashamed of yourself, if not that explains a lot. I know that I have never cheated nor have any of my colleagues. My students deserve to be congratulated for the hard work that they did. I am proud of them!! Take your negative comments to FOX.

Submitted by Betsy Wice (not verified) on August 31, 2010 3:42 pm

Cheating does happen in the PSD. One example: Frederick Douglass had a fantastic spike in PSSA scores in spring 2008. A new young "turnaround" principal encouraged teachers to walk up and down the aisles, pointing to places on the scoring sheet where a student could "go back and check that one." Some of the Douglass teachers did NOT cheat. Their impressive scores came because they had focused on test prep all year and they were effective teachers (and how much more effective they could have been if they'd felt free to do REAL teaching!). Other teachers did cheat. No one monitored the rooms on the days of testing. Students were split into smaller groups (making it that much easier for the teacher to "monitor" which circle each student was filling in on the answer sheet.).
By hearsay, I know of other testing situations that border on cheating: schools where the 2010 test packets were opened early and the teachers were encouraged to focus on certain items in pre-test "practice"; schools where some students -- the ones expected to achieve Proficiency-- were tested under ideal conditions while their less able classmates were relegated to a noisy, crowded lunchroom. I also know of schools where it was virtually impossible for a student or teacher to cheat.
The Douglass story is history now. The hot-shot young administrator got a cushy job in a suburban district. The Region and Central Office ended up discounting the 2008 scores, took back the "We Made AYP" banner, and relegated Douglass to the Renaissance list. Douglass is no longer part of the PSD; Young Scholars runs it, with a totally new staff.
I am a longtime veteran of the PSD. I do not think our students are incapable of achieving or incapable of scoring well on PSSA tests. But I do think that the emphasis on scores has undermined our students' education and led to ethical compromises for many students, teachers, and administrators.

Submitted by Anonymous teacher (not verified) on August 31, 2010 3:43 pm

I agree with you. In my opinion the only way public school test scores will ever be believed by the general public is when the tests are administered by disinterested outside parties. (That doesn't seem to be a view much supported here though.)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 31, 2010 3:41 pm

That is a great idea.......and would eliminate much of the possibility for cheating that exists.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 31, 2010 3:28 pm

Your reaction to my comments on cheating prove my point. Being a skeptic does not mean being dishonest. Let's go over some of your statements.

1. Why can't the students of PSD score well without cheating?? - As Ron pointed out, if the scores are going up on the PSSA, why are they not going up on the NAEP. I do believe that some of the increase on the PSSA's is legitimate because of the narrowing of the curriculum and because the SDP deserves credit for implementing the Core Curriculum with Planning and Scheduling Timelines in 2002. I remember the bad old days before 2002 where quite frankly many teachers just taught what they wanted, and students would move from school to school where the curriculums were completely different. But 8 straight years of significant improvement seems a little too good to be true.

2. You must be a dishonest person yourself to keep accusing teachers/admin. of cheating - Cmon, that doesn't make sense. If I am skeptical about something, that makes me dishonest???

3. Unless you have personally witnessed what you attest to then you need to stop spreading your lies. - If I personally witnessed cheating I will report it. I have twice strong urged teachers who have personally witnessed violations to report them, but they did not for a variety of reasons. Look, i know secondhand stories do not stand up in court, but this is not court, this is a blog. I have heard these stories, and many of my teacher friends have shared stories they have heard from their friends.

4. I don't think teachers would risk their certificates for anything. If you are a Philly teacher you should be ashamed of yourself, if not that explains a lot. - I used to think the same thing...why would teachers risk their certificates??.....we are not (yet) tying test scores to our pay. However, you have heard about the renaissance schools and promise academies?? Is it out of the realm of possibility that a teacher or group of teachers would want to keep test scores high to ensure they do not have to force transfer from a school they have worked quite happily at for many years? I do think most of the suspected cheating however is coming from principals who we know are under tremendous pressure to increase test scores. And for being ashamed for myself.....why.....am I not allowed to question the validity of these test scores??

5. I know that I have never cheated nor have any of my colleagues. My students deserve to be congratulated for the hard work that they did. I am proud of them!! - You should be proud of them.....I do think most schools are doing the right thing. I am at a school where I would bet alot of money that no one has cheated....we are also proud of our scores :) .but you know what sucks.....if it turns out 5% of the schools are cheating, it puts a shadow on the 95% of the schools doing the right thing.

6. Take your negative comments to FOX - I am a proud liberal and longtime teacher in the school district. Telling me to take anything to FOX hurts :) Let me ask you this.....What makes you so sure that there is ZERO cheating going on?

I love to debate, but we can be civil about it. Congrats again on your students accomplishments. Hope you have a good school year

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 31, 2010 5:37 pm

What makes you think that other districts aren't cheating as well??

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 31, 2010 5:01 pm

I think that there is enough people against us that we all need to stick together and stop accusing people of things which we have zero proof!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 31, 2010 5:45 pm

I think it is rediculous that everyone is so concerned with one test. This test is biased against Philly kids as well as special ed.

Submitted by Anon this time (not verified) on August 31, 2010 6:14 pm

Thanks for this post. One thing I wonder a lot about is the kids who one way or another wind up not taking the PSSAs. Depending on how you handle exclusions (who is listed as a dropout due to not having been to school enough, issues with special ed and/or ELL labeling, who the school bothers to try to reschedule if they miss the test the first time)...these things all add up. You don't have to be cheating (that is, telling kids the answers) in order to be skewing or manipulating the population of who gets to take the test.

If students that you think are going to do badly on the test don't take it at all, then their (low) scores don't get factored in to your school's results.

And it doesn't have to be a lot of people involved -- you can have most of your staff be honest, hardworking, ethical, dedicated...and a few people in key places who aren't.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on September 21, 2010 11:05 am

 Excellent points.   Another practice that raises problems for me is focusing resources on kids that are "on the bubble" - those that are basic but have a chance of reaching proficient.   This means neglecting the needs of those children who may have significant potential for growth but still not move from a lower category.  

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