Keystone testing begins while PSSA pain lingers
SHAMOKIN - While juniors at Shamokin Area High School begin brand new standardized testing this week, results of the previous test model still linger.
The Keystone Exams debuted across the commonwealth Monday. They're billed as post-course assessments for all high school students enrolled in algebra I, English/literature or biology, and they replace the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams that had been administered to juniors.
The Keystones will be used to determine a high school's proficiency moving forward, but results from the PSSAs aren't being whitewashed.
Shamokin Area High School remains on the first level of PSSA School Improvement. It got there after failing to reach Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) two years running.
And Shamokin Area is not alone. Not a single Northumberland County-based high school - Line Mountain, Milton Area, Mount Carmel Area, Shikellamy or Warrior Run - achieved AYP in 2011-12.
Southern Columbia Area High School, based in Columbia County, did achieve AYP; however, its elementary and middle schools each missed that benchmark.
Shamokin Area's elementary and middle schools fared well in the exams, and the district overall achieved AYP despite the high school falling short.
The PSSAs will remain in place for elementary schools and middle schools, and results varied for both lower levels and for school districts as a whole across Northumberland County.
No one will make it
If the exacting standards of the standardized testing model aren't eased, the district high school will never reach proficiency, said James Zack, Shamokin Area superintendent. That, he says, is a reality most public school districts in Pennsylvania will face.
"As it keeps going up, it's not going to happen," Zack said, referencing the PSSA benchmarks, which are raised each year as part of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.
Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have sought waivers from various provisions of the act, but Pennsylvania is not among them.
To be "proficient," a student must earn a minimum score of 80 percent on a PSSA exam, says Ruby Michetti, Shamokin Area's curriculum coordinator.
For a school and for a school district to be proficient, it also must reach certain benchmarks as they increase.
In 2011-12, the act required 81 percent of students test as at least "proficient" in reading and 78 percent in math. Shamokin Area High School students totaled 59 percent and 57 percent, respectively, last year in those subjects, a dip from 2010-11. Last year was the first in the past four years, however, that district juniors failed to meet AYP in math.
The standards rise this year to 91 percent and 89 percent, respectively, for the third-grade, fifth-grade and eighth-grade students who continued with PSSA testing. In 2014, the benchmark will be 100 percent in each subject.
"I haven't seen any school district in the state hit 100 percent yet," Zack said. "It's not practical to do that."
Ultimately, if a school district continues to fail to meet AYP, it opens itself to a state takeover. Zack said that isn't likely, however, especially with the rising standards. Still, the threat remains in writing as per NCLB.
It would take Shamokin Area High School three more years of failing to reach AYP for the state to consider a takeover because of a lack of proficient students. And it will take the school two consecutive years of reaching proficiency to get it in the state's good graces as far as the testing is concerned.
Benchmarks in the dark
What the proficiency benchmarks are for the newly enacted Keystone Exams is a mystery to school administrators, Michetti said, because that information has not yet been released.
"We know the Keystones are going to come in at a very high level," she said. "It's really difficult to reach these benchmarks that remain in the dark."
Although the exams will be used to measure a school's performance, this year's exams won't count toward a student's personal achievement. However, beginning with the class of 2017, each student must pass the exams in each subject matter in order to graduate.
There is concern that the Keystones do not offer a modified test version for students with special needs, and that the testing matter may surpass what a student has learned, especially for freshmen.
Regardless, Michetti is hoping the high school will see an improvement of 10 percent on the Keystones over last year's PSSA results.
Since Shamokin Area High School is on the first level of PSSA School Improvement, its administrators are required to develop an improvement plan to raise test scores. That plan was approved last month by the school board.
Among the provisions: align language arts and mathematics curriculum to the common core, making sure the subject matter matches national standards; pursue professional development for faculty; and train teachers to analyze student achievement data, tailoring lessons based on that data.
Michetti says the data analysis has paid dividends so far, allowing teachers to track student growth. It lets them identify an individual student's struggles and allows the teacher to focus on specific content that's been troubling them.
Meanwhile, student participation remains a strength, and the 11th grade math tutoring program "continues to enhance our scores significantly, raising them by nearly 100 percent since the 2006-07 school year," according to the improvement plan.