Pa. reports lower performance on standardized tests

‘This year’s results are anything but standard,’ Sherri Smith, deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education, said in a statement

By: - March 4, 2022 12:22 pm

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The Pennsylvania Department of Education has released standardized test scores from the 2020-21 academic year. As expected, the numbers reflect a decline in performance.

Responding to the lower performance level, state education officials urged caution on Friday, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic caused learning gaps as schools adjusted to varied instruction models.

“Historically, standardized assessment results have been an important part of understanding school performance and our work to close achievement and opportunity gaps. But this year’s results are anything but standard,” Sherri Smith, deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education, said in a statement.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act mandates the annual standardized tests.

Students in grades 3-8 take the annual Pennsylvania System of School Assessment — PSSA — for language arts and math. Grades 4 and 8 also take a science PSSA. Students unable to participate in general assessments take the Pennsylvania Alternate System of School Assessment — PASA — and the Keystone Exams are an end-of-course assessment in literature, algebra, and biology.

Here’s what percentage of students tested either proficient or above on the literature PSSA:

  • Grade 3: 58.3 percent
  • Grade 4: 56.6 percent
  • Grade 5: 55 percent
  • Grade 6: 57.3 percent
  • Grade 7: 53.3 percent
  • Grade 8: 52.6 percent

Here’s what percentage of students tested either proficient or above on the math PSSA:

  • Grade 3: 47.3 percent
  • Grade 4: 35.6 percent
  • Grade 5: 36.1 percent
  • Grade 6: 28.2 percent
  • Grade 7: 26.9 percent
  • Grade 8: 22.1 percent

Here’s what percentage of students tested either proficient or above on the science PSSA:

  • Grade 4: 75.8 percent
  • Grade 8: 50.8 percent

Here’s what percentage of students tested either proficient or above on the Keystones:

  • Algebra: 62.4 percent
  • Literature: 49.6 percent
  • Biology: 67.6 percent 

Pennsylvania gave schools the option of administering the tests any time between the traditional spring window and the following fall to allow flexibility during the pandemic.

The state usually releases the scores in the fall but postponed making them public so that school districts could have more time to review the numbers for accuracy.

Student participation rates “sharply reduced” from the upper nineties to about 71 percent and made comparisons between districts improper. District evaluations will not include the scores, according to the department.

“Given these circumstances, the results should not be viewed as a complete, representative sample of all students in the commonwealth, nor should a single assessment during an atypical school year be considered a true metric of student performance,” Smith said. “We will continue to work closely with schools to assist in the planning and implementation of evidence-based programs.”

Last year, Senate Education Committee Chairperson Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, and Sen. Lindsey Williams, of Allegheny County, the panel’s ranking Democrat, asked the U.S. Department of Education to waive the 2021 federal testing requirement as schools adjusted to mixed instruction models.

Ahead of the 2021-22 school year, parents could hold their students back a grade level to make up for any learning gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey, who represents the largest teachers union in the commonwealth, echoed the Department of Education’s cautionary advice. He said that it was a “waste of state tax dollars” to administer the tests “when we all knew before students put pencil to paper that results would be unusable.”

“The 2021 tests were administered during a global pandemic that disrupted public education and dramatically changed the way students learn,” Askey said in a statement. “Everyone would expect scores and participation rates to drop in this environment, and no one should be surprised that they have.”

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, pushed back against the department’s cautionary note, saying the results confirm fears that the pandemic contributed to learning gaps.

“The proof is clear,” Cutler said in a statement. “The learning loss our children have experienced, by no fault of their own, is immense and very real. The pressure is now on teachers, administrators, parents, and other school leaders to work together with policymakers to solve this crisis and to close the gaps.”

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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.