Mifflin County School Board discusses standardized testing

LEWISTOWN – A discussion on the amount of standardized testing, its effectiveness and what the district is doing to improve scores dominated the committee-of-the-whole meeting of the Mifflin County School District Board of Directors on Thursday.

Following the announcement of results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests late last summer, which saw several of the district’s schools falling into the “needs improvement” status, the school board invited Dawn Hayes, director of federal programs, to Thursday’s session to go over the various standardized tests that are administered yearly to students.

Hayes explained that a total of six different tests are administered to the various grade levels. They include the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), which measures for assessing the acquisition of early literacy skills and identifies areas of reading risk; Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), computer adaptive assessments aligned with the common core that help teachers differentiate instruction for each child to promote growth; Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation (GRADE), which is designed to determine grade level developmental skills and pinpoint areas for instruction and intervention; the PSSAs, which are standards-based, criterion-referenced assessments used to measure a student’s attainment of academic standards while also determining the degree to which school programs enable students to attain proficiency of the standards; and Keystone Exams, which are end-of-year assessments in designated content areas.

The tests track high school accountability assessments for federal and state purposes and determine high school graduation requirements for students beginning with the class of 2017. Also, Advanced Placement exams, which are for students wishing to take them and possibly qualify for credit at colleges and universities.

Some school board members expressed concerns that maybe kids are being given too many of these standardized tests and not receiving enough general classroom education and are instead receiving “too much teaching for the test.”

Hayes said the PSSA and Keystone exams are mandated by the state and the GRADE tests are required as part of the agreement with a $1.5 million grant the district received starting this year and hopes to continue receiving for another four years.

Hayes also provided a chart that listed the percentage of time spent preparing for the exams on a grade-by-grade level. Those numbers ranged from one to three percent of time depending on the grade and the frequency of the standardized tests.

With regard to the poorer performing schools from last year’s PSSA results, Superintendent James Estep said principals have been tasked to be more accountable and “Making sure people are doing what they’re supposed to do. We don’t want them to tolerate deviation.”

With regard to curriculum from school to school, Estep said, “With the actual curriculum there’s not a wide variation. Classroom to classroom, yes. That’s where we have to have principals in the classrooms knowing what’s being taught. If there’s a tremendous disparity, then something needs to be done.”

Estep said that looking back over a period of many years, there have always been some buildings have have not been up to state standards. With regard to fixing that, he commented, “It will take time. This has to be strategic. We need to have a continued commitment between teams of people to do it the way it needs to be done.

“There’s a perception problem here from top to bottom, in my opinion, on the whole issue of assessments. Everybody wants to presume that assessments are what we do and they’re not a part of the teaching and learning process. True assessments are integrated and completely tied in with what we’re doing educationally.”

Estep said he is much more concerned with seeing a child experience growth, “even if he doesn’t quite measure up to the PSSA standards.”

During the public comment period, Dianne Shearer, president of the Association of Mifflin County Educators, agreed teachers are spending too much time “teaching to the test. But, that’s not your fault and it’s not our fault. It’s just the way of the world today.”

As to the negativity surrounding standardized test scores and children not getting the job done, Shearer said, “I hate to hear our students aren’t performing. I beg to differ. We have a lot of kids who are performing and performing very well. Our teachers can do a lot, and yes, we have excellent teachers. We also have some that need help. That’s in any profession though. Unfortunately, there are a lot of parents out there who simply don’t know how to help their children academically. Lewistown Elementary School is suffering because of the socio-economic status of the area. Even so, there are a lot of kids there that are successful today. Many of these tests are tied in with the district receiving federal and state money to pay for teachers and books.”

Following Shearer’s remarks, Estep added, “I recognize we have a lot of kids that are doing good things. But I can’t turn a blind eye to the 40 to 45 percent who aren’t making it. We have to do something for those kids.”

In other business, the board discussed the following agenda items that will be slated for a vote during its Feb. 28 business meeting:

A recommendation to close Union Elementary School at the completion of the 2012-13 school year due to district restructuring.

Consideration of a request from St. John’s Lutheran Church to hold the 27th Annual Handbell Festival at Mifflin County Middle School on Sunday, April 28, and have the $500 fee waived.

A recommendation to add Beverly Lightfoot-Gers and Lisa Baitsell to the cafeteria substitute list.

A recommendation to accept the retirement of Mark Baylor, music teacher at Mifflin County Middle School, East Derry Elementary School and Lewistown Elementary School, effective at the end of the current school year.

The following additions to the substitute teacher list: Megan Whary, early childhood education; Jill Zeger, health/phys ed; Wayne Bond, all subject areas; and Jennifer Cohenour, all subject areas.

A recommendation to grant tenure to Wendy Mauery and Jennifer Hartzler.

The following deletions from the paraprofessional substitute list: Loretta Cherry and Jennifer Rhodes.

A recommendation to approve the Mifflin County High School Indoor Drumline to attend the Tournament of Bands Indoor Association Chapter 4 Championships at Williamsport High School on Sunday, April 28.

Consideration of a resolution approving the final subdivision plan of the land parcel in Oliver Township which contains Strodes Mills Elementary and the former Strodes Mills Middle School.

A recommendation to approve Carole Heckman as a bus driver for KV Bus Line.

A request from Ruth Yoder for a sabbatical leave of absence for the purpose of study during the 2013-14 school year.

Approval of the 2013-14 school calendar.

A recommendation to approve the following fall coaches: Gregory Loht, head cross country; and Trevor Eckley, head girls soccer.

A resolution authorizing a lease for farming purposes for the land adjacent to the former Brown Elementary School.