Standards and Testing at UCF

In an earlier post I introduced the topic of “opting out” of standardized testing.  Today, I look at our current practices in Unionville Chadds Ford schools when it comes to standardized tests.

How do standardized tests fit into UCF’s educational program and philosophy?

State Requirements

First, we should note that standardized testing is required by the State of Pennsylvania.  Requirements include the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and end-of-course Keystone Exams.

The PSSA  includes assessments in English Language Arts and Mathematics that are taken by students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.  Students in grades 4 and 8 also take the Science PSSA. The exams are aligned to the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards in English Language Arts; Mathematics; and Science, Technology, Environment and Ecology.

Keystone Exams are end–of-course assessments in designated content areas for high school students. The Keystone Exams serve two purposes: (1) high school accountability assessments for federal and state purposes, and (2) high school graduation requirements for students beginning with the class of 2017.

These tests are required, but districts make different choices about how they do (or don’t) tailor their educational program around the tests and the standards behind the tests.

Standards, Curriculum and Testing at UCF

Where does standardized testing fit into UCF?

As I see it, our administration believes that a great education is the product of a strong curriculum, delivered by excellent teachers.   Our UCF curriculum is aligned to a body of knowledge (PA Standards) that state and national educators believe is appropriate for each grade.

As the state requires, UCF periodically tests whether students have mastered that body of knowledge.  PSSA test results show what students have learned, and how well our schools are doing in educating our students in core subjects.

Is our classroom instruction aligned to the material that will be tested?  Absolutely.  Whether or not one likes the common core, this is exactly the point of the PA standards.  UCF schools teach to the standards because the standards lay out the competencies and capabilities each student should acquire, at each grade.  (If you have never looked at the standards, I highly recommend doing so.  Click here.)

Measurement

Do we prepare students for testing?  Absolutely.  Study Island is a great example.  This web-based software is used throughout the district, and helps students master the grade-level academic standards set by the state of Pennsylvania.  This software includes practice questions, formative assessments, and reinforces concepts taught in school.

Is this “teaching to the test” or is this teaching kids what the standards say they should know? Is Study Island “test prep” or is it a tool students use to reinforce classroom learning and to be familiar with the way standardized tests ask questions?    Labels sometimes clarify the essence of a matter, and sometimes they obscure it.  When talking about UCF, I don’t think “teaching to the test” or “test prep” are labels that get at the essence of what is really going on in our classrooms.

Are there elements of PA Standards that need refinement?  Are all standards developmentally-appropriate?  The experts continue to debate those finer points, especially on some standards for Kindergarten and first graders (note that PSSAs are not given prior to 3rd grade).  These debates are useful, and can only help improve the standards for the future.  I am sure that the standards are not perfect, and that compromises were made by the committees of educators who developed the standards.

Has UCF narrowed the curriculum to teach only those subjects that are tested?  Not from what I can see.  For example, there are no PA Standards for Art, Music, History, Tech Ed, nor PhysEd, yet these subjects remain integral to our educational program at UCF.  There are no Keystone exams on community service, varsity sports, or musical theater, yet these activities are well-funded and have strong support from students and faculty.  Our teachers foster critical thinking, organizational skills, mutual respect, and creativity — although none of those skills are explicitly tested.  The UHS course catalog is expansive.  Patton Middle School offers a wide variety of teacher-supported clubs and activities.  I see a full and vibrant curriculum.

Test Results and Evaluations at UCF

Are student test results used fairly in evaluating teacher and administrator performance?   Pennsylvania has a mandatory teacher evaluation system, which ties 30% of a teacher’s annual performance evaluation to student test results, with half of that (15%) coming from building-level results.  (If the teacher does not teach in a tested grade or subject, which most don’t, then the building-level results make up the entire 30%).   So student standardized test results impact a maximum 30% of a teacher’s performance evaluation.

Our administrators recognize that test results are only one indicator of performance and that there is noise in the annual results.  The evaluation rubric gives more weight to teacher practices and classroom observations (neither of which is a flawless indicator either).    I have not heard of our administration sanctioning a teacher due to poor student test scores on a single PSSA test.  This is not to say it has never happened, but rather that none of the resignations nor terminations that have occurred during my tenure on the board have been due to the student test scores of a particular classroom teacher.

Our community realizes that test scores reflect the confluence of multiple factors:  the motivation of students to learn, the quality of our curriculum, the skill of our teachers, the leadership of our administrators, the climate in our schools, the support given to students by our families, and the education level of parents.   Our teachers know this; our administrators know this; our school board knows this.  Education is a complex enterprise.  Test results tell us how the end-to-end to system is performing on tested subjects.  While useful and necessary, it does not provide a complete and perfect picture of school performance.

Test Results and Stress at UCF

Tests can be stressful for kids.  For the younger kids, that stress is transmitted to them from the adults around them.  I do hear that our teachers talk frequently to our students about the importance of the PSSAs.   If a student answers a question incorrectly on a quiz or homework, they might be reminded that “You will have only have one chance to get it right on the PSSA”.  Or when a unit test is being reviewed, students might be told “this is the kind of question that will be on the PSSA”.   How much of this is common sense advice and encouraging students to take the PSSA seriously, vs. over-emphasizing the importance of the exam?

StressAt the high school level, Keystone exams have more consequences for students, and this will especially be true for the class of 2017 and those who come after, as passing those exams will be a graduation requirement.  (Exams can be retaken, if necessary, or students may demonstrate subject mastery by completing a project.)

How much extra stress on students come from the exams themselves?  It seems like there is some extra stress from these exams.  But is it materially different from the other stresses in students’ lives, especially since the PSSAs don’t have any impact on student grades?

Conclusion

I believe UCF has done a good job of meeting state testing requirements and delivering a sound, rich, and comprehensive educational experience.  So what exactly is the problem?  What is the critique from the “opt movement”, and are they on to something?  I will cover that in my next post.