By Amanda Litvinov
For more than a decade, Pennsylvania educators and parents have been speaking up about the impact that high-stakes testing has on students. Their concerns centered on the amount of instruction time lost to prepare for and administer standardized tests, and the spike in stress and anxiety that many students experience as a result.
“Too much valuable instruction time is taken up by excessive testing,” said 4th-grade teacher Lynn Cashell of Garnet Valley. “Many of the testing expectations are not developmentally appropriate, including having young children sit and try to focus for hours on end.”
Governor Tom Wolf, who took office in 2015, listened to educators and parents about the excessive, lengthy and stressful state tests and made it a top priority of his administration to reduce the state testing burden. Those changes go into full effect this year.
The first round of changes made a noticeable difference last year. Gov. Wolf reduced the length of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) by an average of 20 percent in grades 3 through 8, in an effort to preserve critical instruction time.
Working with the Department of Education, Gov. Wolf eliminated two sections of the PSSA, one in math and one in English language arts, and reduced the number of questions in the science assessment.
That cut two days of testing.
Starting this year, the timeframe for the PSSA will be reduced from three weeks to two weeks and shifted to later in the school year.
The calendar shift is designed to ease stress on students and give them up to two additional weeks to learn before taking the assessment.
Educators have long sought common-sense changes to end the “toxic testing” culture that resulted from the 2001 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind. Its replacement, The Every Student Succeeds Act of 201X (ESSA), empowered states to design accountability systems that use more than just test scores to assess schools.
Governor Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Education seized the opportunity to cut back on mandated testing, to allow educators to put the focus back on learning over test prep.
“Gov. Wolf gets it on standardized testing,” said Dolores McCracken, who served as a paraprofessional in a 6th grade inclusion classroom for nearly two decades and is now president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).
“He’s heard and understands what teachers, parents, and students have been saying for a long time—that the PSSA testing schedule should be pushed later into the academic year to allow for more quality instructional time,” McCracken said. “He also understands that less time spent on testing allows for more time spent teaching and learning.”
Gov. Wolf also signed a bill in June 2017 that provides career and technical education students with an alternative to the high-stakes Keystone Exams.
Find out more about PSEA’s work around standardized testing at www.psea.org/testing.