Opting In – the Value of PSSAs

I talked in my previous post about uniquely powerful information that comes from PSSAs.   In today’s post:  what makes PSSA data so powerful?

Imagine you are moving to take a new job, and you need to find the best school for your children.  How do you measure and compare school performance?

Consider three elementary schools and their respective fifth grade classrooms.  Based on PSSAs, the schools have the following profiles:

Achievement and Growth Example

  • School 1 — All entering 5th grade students start the year at ‘basic’  in Math … they have a partial understanding and limited display of the required skills expected at the end of 4th grade.  By the end of school, all 5th graders are proficient –they now have a solid understanding and adequate display of 5th grade math content and standards.
  • School 2 — Entering 5th grade students are all ‘proficient’ in Math.  By the end of school, 1/4 are ‘basic’, 1/2 are ‘proficient’, and 1/4 are ’advanced’ or have a in-depth understanding and exemplary display of 5th grade content and standards.
  • School 3 — Half of entering  5th grade students are ‘proficient’, and half are ‘advanced’.  By the end of school, the same half remain ‘proficient’ and the other half remain ‘advanced’.

Measuring Achievement

Let’s start looking at achievement.   Which school ends the year with the highest level of student achievement?

School 1 and School 2 are similar … on average both are ‘proficient’.  School 1 educated all students to the required level.   School 2 has 25% of its students performing at the advanced level, but also 25% performing at only the basic level.   Most observers would say that School 1 has better achievement results than School 2 … no children have been “left behind”.Achievement and Growth Example EOY

But achievement at School 3 is better than both School 1 and School 2.  All students at School 3 are proficient or higher, with half at an advanced level.  So School 3 has the highest overall achievement.   No controversy with that conclusion, right?   So we should all want to send our elementary students to School 3!

What about Growth?

But let’s look more closely at the achievement winner.   School 3 has the highest overall proficiency, but what has School 3 done to improve its student proficiency during the year?   Against the grade level standards, students finished at exactly same place that they started … each student gained a year’s worth of knowledge (and only a year’s worth of knowledge).  So School 3 did a decent job.  But we should note that students learned no more than expected, given their starting point.

Achievement and Growth Example Change

School 1 did a much better job.   School 1 helped all students improve from basic to proficient.  All students acquired more than one year’s worth of knowledge … each recovered from starting the year behind grade-level, and then met the expectations for 5th grade by the end of the year.  School 1 imparted more than one year’s learning to every student.

What about School 2?  School 2 raised the performance of 25% of its students from proficient to advanced, but it also failed to keep pace with 25% of its students, who dropped from proficient to basic.  On average, School 2 did the same ‘decent job’ as School 3:  the average student gained a year’s worth of knowledge.

On the growth dimension, School 1 was the best performer. But it was not easy to see that result if we looked only at achievement.  If you are choosing a school for your kids, you want the school that will help your child grow the most each year.

Achievement and Growth

Achievement shows results against a standard.  It is an absolute standard.  Higher achievement is better than lower achievement.

Growth shows progress compared to where each student started.  More growth is better.Growth and Achievement a Full Picture

Annual PSSA testing allows consistent assessment of school-level achievement and growth on reading, writing, math, and science.  And while both achievement and growth results are important, growth measurements have an added feature.  By using a variety of statistical techniques called ‘value-added analysis’, PSSA data can be synthesized to remove much of the influence of socio-economic and demographic factors.

Why remove the influence of these factors?   Because studies have consistently shown that a majority of the differences in academic achievement between  K12 schools is due to the influence of socio-economic and demographic factors (like whether a student’s parents went to college, or how much annual income the family earns).   So rather than measuring how good a school is performing, achievement results are indirectly measuring the wealth of the community and the value that parents place on education.  (Studies show that 50%-80% of achievement follows from these demographic factors.)

But value-added models control for these factors.  And the resulting ‘growth score’ provides administrators, board members, and parents with a much ‘cleaner’ view into true school performance.  Pennsylvania calls this result the “PVAAS” score (Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System). Pennsylvania’s Department of Education has a good explanation of PVAAS and its importance here:  PDE Growth and Achievement Reporting  (highly recommended).

So to boil it down, achievement is the end goal for our schools, and growth is measure of the system’s capability to deliver on that goal.  In order to have a clear view of school performance, we must have annual testing.  You can’t reliably calculate school value-added without testing almost every student, every year.

‘Opting In’ Gives Insight to School Performance

Opt out, if it gains traction, would bias the data set and make it much harder to evaluate school value added.  Confirmation BiasAnd without good information, administrators will have a harder time knowing when improvements are needed, parents will have less information by which to select districts and schools for their kids, and board members will have less information by which to hold the administration accountable for improving our schools.

UCFSD’s mission is “unlocking the potential in all of us”.   Growth and achievement scores are good indicators of how well we are achieving the academic side of that mission.   And we can only measure growth with the right kind of test instrument.

In my next two posts I will show you achievement and growth results for UCFSD.   Once you see the data that comes from PSSAs, I think you will agree that it is powerful and provides valuable insight into school performance – especially our own schools here in Unionville Chadds Ford.