Friday, January 25, 2008

The PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) is a term we all know and most of us hate. (at least most of the parents, teachers, administrators, and students) How did we get to this point? How did this one test, in the name of school improvement, come to define the teachers, label the students, and often times punish the school districts? How in the world was learning taken out of the hands of the educators and placed into the hands of the legislatures? The answer lies in a complicated array of world events, political platforms, underpaid teachers, and uniformed parents. How did the PSSA evolve into the all consuming and seemingly all encompassing test that it is today? Let’s start with a bit of history on standardized testing. Click below on "read more" to learn about the history of the PSSA.
In the United States, there are early examples of standardized testing revolving around IQ testing. But the real pre cursor of the modern day standardized testing came in 1900 when the College Entrance Examination Board was founded. The College Board (as it is now know) tested the three R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic), plus science, foreign language, and history. (Interestingly enough, all of the questions were essay. Multiple choice questions were a later invention!) Simply because these were the areas that the College Board tested, most education began to center around these subjects. By the 1920’s, the College Board had created (May I have a drum roll please...) the SAT. (Mathews 2006) There you have it: the benchmark for standardized tests.

Now let us fast forward to the 1950’s and 1960’s. The “space race” between the United States and the USSR was on and though national standardized tests were not used, demands began on schools to show improvement especially in the area of Science. (Better Scientists equals beating the USSR to the moon. Guess what? History will show that we did make it to the moon first without the cajoling of standardized tests.) In the 1960’s, 1970’s and the 1980’s real change came about in standardized testing. It was during these years that the Nation Assessment of Educational Progress NAEP was born. (NAEP is also referred to as “The Nations Report Card”.) (Mathews, National Center for Home Education April 2002) This standardized test helped policy makers and states to review the effectiveness of their schools. In 1983, a huge national revelation took place when a commission report, A Nation at Risk, was released. Basically, using a lot of the buzz words that we hear today, “global village,” “information age”, etc the report stated that the public schools expectations were mediocre.
Interestingly enough, here is an excerpt from the report stating the commission stance on standardized testing:
“Standardized tests of achievement (not to be confused with aptitude tests) should be administered at major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work. The purposes of these tests would be to: (a) certify the student's credentials; (b) identify the need for remedial intervention; and (c) identify the opportunity for advanced or accelerated work. The tests should be administered as part of a nationwide (but not Federal) system of State and local standardized tests. This system should include other diagnostic procedures that assist teachers and students to evaluate student progress.” (A Nation at Risk, Rec. B)
Note there is a need for other diagnostic testing (not just one that can do it all), and the tests were not recommended every year!!
In the late 1980’s, then Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton, spearheaded the drive for more standardized testing and continued to promote it into his presidency. (Sorry President Bush critics, this has been coming for a while.) (By the way, Hillary Rodham Clinton was on the 1986 NAEP study group which led to major changes in the NAEP. I wonder if her deep seeded presidential fantasy started then.) (Home School Legal Defense, April 2002)

In 1988, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) was created to set policies and make decisions regarding the NAEP. Continuing through till today, yearly tests are given, but on a rotating basis. States participate in the tests on a voluntary basis. (

Now, once again, fast forward to 2001 and along comes the No Child Left Behind Act. This act is actually an updated version and reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. NCLB mandated standardized testing in grades 3, 5, and 11. The focus of the NCLB is to provide accountability and high standards for all children. So high are the standards in fact, that all children, from all backgrounds must test proficient on a state assessment in Math, Reading, and Science by the year 2014. (That’s correct, 100 percent! A lofty goal to say the least.)

This is where the PSSA comes into play. Its evolution parallels much of these national events. Basically, during the “space race” years (1969-1970), the first state assessment was administered. This test, called the Educational Quality Assessment, was used in schools until the mid 1980’s. (Not coincidentally, right after the infamous “A Nation at Risk” report was generated.) During this time, the Testing for Essential Learning and Literacy Skills (TELLS) was created. The TELLS program was used until 1992 when it was replaced by the PSSA. (DRC 2006 Tech. Report. Pg 1-2)

In 1992, when the PSSA was first developed, school districts were required to participate every third year, but it soon became a yearly requirement. Along with that, a grade 6 and 9 writing assessment became mandatory on a 3 year cycle. By 1999, the Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Mathematics were implemented by the state. With the assumption of these standards, the PSSA became and still is an assessment measuring a student’s mastery of the academics that are deemed important by the state. (DRC Tech. Report 2006 pg. 2)

To further link instruction to the Academic Standards, Assessment Anchors were developed. Assessment anchors are slightly more broad goals which state what students should be able to accomplish by a certain grade level. Underneath these are more specific goals called sub assessment anchors and under these goals are even more specific statements called Eligible content statements. (DRC Tec. Report 2006 pg 5, Assessment Anchors and Eligible Content, 2005, Bureau of Assessment and Accountability 2007) Yes ladies and gentlemen, our great state has laid out everything that a student should know, by when, and without deviation from the norm. (Has the Zombie Nation begun?) Because of NCLB requirements, the PSSA began to be administered in grades 3 through 8 and again in grade 11. Writing assessments are given in grades 6, 9, and 11.

Now, after that long, albeit, watered down history, we know the evolutionary path of the PSSA is one filled with historic events, national politics, and a distortion of the original intent of standardized testing.

No comments: