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District to create task force on testing

One goal is "to make sure testing is not eclipsing everything else we do in the District," said SRC Chair Marjorie Neff.

By Dale Mezzacappa and Greg Windle on Nov 12, 2015 07:11 PM

The Philadelphia School District plans to convene an assessment task force to study the impact of all the tests administered to city students and make recommendations for changes.

Chris Schaffer, deputy chief for curriculum, instruction and assessment, said that the task force will include parents, teachers, community members, and perhaps students.

The goal is to have its members in place by the December break and start meeting in January to reconsider the District's approach to testing.

"The task force will have access to all assessment information and staff to help inform our assessment plans for the future – inclusive of recommendations to adjust the frequency, duration, and types of assessments we administer. This group will consist of school and community members representative of the District's landscape," Schaffer said.

How many members will be named, and how they will be chosen, is still being decided, Schaffer said.

"I want to get something that's representative of everybody," he said – including parents and teachers who have been vocal in the opt-out movement that encourages families to decline to allow their children to take tests.

District officials said they were responding to several recent developments that highlight concerns about testing.

A two-year study on standardized testing in 66 big-city public school districts in the United States, released Oct. 25, found that students take an average of eight standardized tests per year, consuming between 20 and 25 hours of classroom time. It was commissioned in 2013 by the Council of the Great City Schools to better inform public debate about testing reform.

Michael Casserly, the Council’s executive director, said in a statement: “Everyone has some culpability in how much testing there is and how redundant and uncoordinated it is – Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, states, local school systems. … Everyone must play a role in improving this situation.”

At the same time, President Obama issued a statement that urged a rethinking of testing. In a video on the White House’s Facebook page, President Obama said, “In moderation, smart, strategic [testing] can help us measure our kids’ progress,” but "tests shouldn't occupy too much classroom time or crowd out teaching and learning."

The president’s latest education policy called for states and districts to limit the time spent on standardized tests to no more than 2 percent of classroom hours. The president has called on Congress to make this limit a law. 

Last spring, City Council passed a resolution urging the District to "analyze the financial, human and financial impact" of testing and take steps to minimize its use.

Another looming issue is that unless there is a change in state law, Pennsylvania students will be required to pass Keystone exams in English, algebra, and biology in order to graduate starting in 2017, and many will struggle to do so.

School Reform Commission Chair Marjorie Neff said that she wants the District's task force "to be a stakeholder discussion, including the kids affected and parents."

Neff, former principal of Masterman middle and high school, said the task force will grapple with big questions. 

"It boils down to that tension between how do we make sure we are holding kids and educators to high standards while at the same time not making these tests a barrier for next steps for kids," she said. The task force will also look at the amount of  testing and the impact of high-stakes tests on the qualiy of instruction in the classroom.

Neff said that she would like to see the task force come up with two sets of recommendations: one for the administration of Gov. Wolf and Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera and another for internal use, "to make sure testing is not eclipsing everything else we do in the District."

The Council of the Great City Schools study found that in 8th grade, the most intensive year for testing, big-city public school students spend an average of 4.2 days, or 2.3 percent of all classroom time, taking standardized tests – not including the time used to prepare for these tests.

The study found no correlation between larger amounts of mandated test time and improved reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test also known as the Nation's Report Card.

The Wolf administration has also said it wants to re-evaluate the use of testing in schools in the commonwealth.

“Secretary Rivera and Gov. Wolf believe that while standardized tests can provide useful benchmarks for growth, they are not the sole indicator of student achievement,” Nicole Reigelman, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said in an email. “The administration is exploring additional means to more holistically assess student and school achievement.”

Robert McGrogan, head of Philadelphia's principals' union, said that the estimates of how many hours it takes to administer tests are likely understated.

“The whole day is really lost to the assessment," he said.

McGrogan said that, on days when testing is scheduled in the morning, shorter class periods and student frustration “make the post-test portion of the day a decompression period, and certainly not one where quality instruction is facilitated.”

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Comments (49)

Submitted by Diane Payne (not verified) on November 12, 2015 8:40 pm

So, maybe the SRC should not ignore and dismiss the comments that speakers bring before them every month.  Commenters have been saying this for years regarding the increased amount and consequences of standardized testing.  These tests are child abuse and only serve to enrich the test makers and justify the privatization efforts.  

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 13, 2015 5:34 am

Fascinating comments from Chris Schaffer. Another Central Office big-wig shepharding folks who don't provide any service to schools. Ask Schaffer the date of the last professional development, assistance session, or walkthrough members of his office performed in suppoprt of schools. I would be cautious of asking him to lead any task force related to standardized testing. This is the same gentleman that agreed to spending crucial district dollars on Benchmark Assessments that schools don't utilize. The curriculum office should have repurposed the money and with the capacity of the office created the Benchmarks themselves. Another School District of Philadelphia waste of time, effort, and energy. Don't expect a change of practice. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 13, 2015 5:10 am

There's also Benchmark testing, and in some grades and programs required AP testing, NOCTI pre-testing, NOCTI testing, and Industry Certification testing. All add additional hours/days to students testing - not including the time used to prepare for these tests.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 13, 2015 11:28 pm

Why didn't the district investigate Karen Kolsky's involvement with high stakes testing. Many of her schools were found to have irregularities in the testing program, yet the district gives her a promotion and salary increase. The Hite administration apparently promotes those who consistently mess up and put themselves first before students. It's so pathetic.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 13, 2015 11:44 pm

Why didn't the district investigate Karen Kolsky's involvement with high stakes testing. Many of her schools were found to have irregularities in the testing program, yet the district gives her a promotion and salary increase. The Hite administration apparently promotes those who consistently mess up and put themselves first before students. It's so pathetic.

Submitted by Alison McDowell (not verified) on November 13, 2015 9:04 am

We already have the power to stop standardized testing. You simply opt your children out. Easy. Millions of tax payer dollars saved and many hours of class time reclaimed for real teaching and learning. You don't need a task force to tell you that. And since when has anyone affiliated with the SRC or 440 been concerned with the actual well being of students or teachers?

Submitted by Lisa Hantman (not verified) on November 13, 2015 6:45 pm

Is the task force getting paid? A task force is not needed. I can tell you, after 27 years as a dedicated and award winning public educator in this system that, "Yes, absolutely yes, the testing is eclipsing all else in the Philadelphia schools!"


Submitted by Soon to be retired (not verified) on November 14, 2015 5:04 am

On Tuesday, Nov. 17, principals and 440 leadership will attend a "blended learning fair" as part of their monthly professional development.  Corporations with online "blended learning" programs, will promote their products.  This is another form of testing.  These products are very narrow, skill driven assessments allegedly to "individualize learning."  They have nothing to do with critical thinking and thinking out of the box.  "Blended learning" is the backbone of the "competency" focus at the so-called "innovation schools."

Read more on the "Compentence Based Education" at

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 14, 2015 7:52 pm
The testing coordinator at my school will be out of his math class for 2 weeks straight to give the benchmarks every time this school year. This leaves other teachers to cover his classes, and to make things worse he does not leave any work! Im sure those kids are going to do great considering they are missing approximately 6-8 weeks of math instructions.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 15, 2015 4:08 pm

At our school, the new Regional Supe wants us to spend one day every week going over previous Keystone questions or questions found on Acuity so the kids are very familiar with them come January and May, and it doesn't matter what subject you teach. Also, we have to give a quarterly exam with SAS or Acuity questions in every subject, and in the subjects they don't exist, we have to either make them up in the same style or find some other state's. If you're a freshman at our school, with 6 classes a day, over 4 years, you'll take 96 of those before you graduate in addition to the benchmarks, Keystones, PSATs, SATs, and whatever other tests come about. Oh, and don't forget about those that teachers give.

Submitted by Annoy (not verified) on November 16, 2015 5:29 am

This is the reality of test prep that doesn't get discussed.  In "underperforming" schools, drilling released items is par for the course.  It is as if drilling the type of test questions will engage students or increase the enjoyment of learning.  Reading comprehension, for example, is influenced more by content knowledge than just skills.  A students who has a broad range of experiences, will do beter than someone who has been drilled in the format.  

Will the District control this nonsense?  I doubt it .  Mastery and KIPP also drill the test with benchmarks and sample questions.  While students need to be familiar with the format, it doesn't take this level of test prep.  It was done during the Ackerman years and what did it produce?  Cheating.

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