At this time of year most Philadelphia high schools are stepping up their plans to increase proficiency rates on the high-stakes PSSA test. Administrators and teachers alike are feeling the pressure from above to increase their scores in order to meet their goal of AYP (adequate yearly progress), or at least reaching Safe Harbor (a 10% increase in scores). The jobs of teachers, principals, and even the fate of a school may ride on the test scores of a very small number of students.
In fact, just 23 kids can determine the fate of an entire school. This is not hyperbole – this is the truth in how the PSSA functions. If a school has achieved a 13% proficiency rate in math then to reach Safe Harbor they must increase to 23%. In a junior class of 100 students, that translates to an entire school relying on 23 teenage kids. The strategists among us must see where this is going. In order to increase the chances of reaching that goal, it becomes the school’s (and teacher’s) job to find those 23 kids and give them extra preparation and remediation to ensure they reach our goal.
The emphasis made on this one test has repercussions that go across classes, schools, and Districts. The kids may be re-rostered out of their electives in order to get extra test prep. Teachers may be pulled from other classes in order to help them. It is an irony upon ironies that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act – when reaching its fullest extent – may promote helping fewer kids in order to pass a single test.
Obviously that is not the goal of NCLB but it is one of many unfortunate outcomes. With the fate of an entire school or District in the balance, educators and administrators will be forced to stop at nothing to get their scores. I have heard stories of cheating on these tests because they are so important. And administrators are constantly berating high-quality educators so that if the outcomes are not reached, they will have some justification in dismissing them and showing that they have “done” something.
I usually try to end my posts with some kind of positive recommendation or suggestion that everyone is able to do. In this case, I think it will require a large group of people to change the status quo and I’m not entirely sure what it would look like. Obviously it would not include these high-stakes tests but how to get from here to there? I am unsure. Thoughts are appreciated.
Safe Harbor: For schools that have missed their target goals of adequate yearly progress, they may increase their proficiency rates by 10% in order to be considered improving.
PSSA: Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. The standardized test that all 11th grade high school students take that determines the adequate yearly progress of the entire building.
AYP: Adequate Yearly Progress. A term created by the No Child Left Behind Act to delineate the incremental progress a school should be making.