By Hillary Linardopoulos
Another round of PSSA testing has come and gone. The 26 students in my third-grade class took six days of intense exams intended to measure their grade-level proficiency in reading and math.
State guidelines require that "ethical testing practices must be maintained during the administration of a test ... to ensure test results reflect actual student learning."
However, while teachers adhere to those standards, for many students, the test - the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment - is neither ethical nor reflective of student learning.
Teachers are often told that if they taught the proper methodology and stopped making excuses, they would have better results. However, scoring proficient or advanced on the PSSA (the scores needed to help a school make Adequate Yearly Progress) is simply not an attainable goal for some students in any given academic year.
Consider a student diagnosed with severe learning disabilities. His Individualized Education Plan (IEP) includes modifications such as reading test questions aloud to him, using visual cues, and using manipulative objects to solve math problems. His IEP reflects the importance of being exposed to grade-level content, but it also addresses his need for supplemental literacy and math lessons. None of these accommodations, however, are permitted for him on the state test. This young man, who reads on a kindergarten level, must read and analyze passages written for students three years beyond his ability - without any of the modifications mandated by his IEP.
So he takes the test, does poorly, and his scores are used as a measure of our school's AYP. More significantly, he feels like a failure.
Consider another child who has been in the United States for a little more than a year. He has acquired a fair amount of social language, but is unable to read at a kindergarten level in English. This child, along with many other English-language learners (ELL) in my class, is in the lower levels of English acquisition, as indicated by his standardized test for language level. One would expect that language level would dictate whether the PSSA is an appropriate exam for him. It does not.
Since he has been in the United States for more than 366 days, he must take the reading PSSA in English - with not one word of translation or the use of a dictionary permitted. (He can take the mathematics portion of the exam in Spanish.) Despite the accommodations and modifications mandated - and needed - during our daily instruction, none of these are permitted on the test.
So, he takes the test, does poorly, and his scores are used as a measure of our school's AYP. More significantly, he feels like a failure.
At Julia de Burgos, close to 90 percent of our students are Latino, and about 25 percent are classified as ELL. Our special-education population is 14 percent. Half of my class is either ELL, special-ed, or both. Only the three students who have been in the United States for less than one year are exempt from the reading exam.
Changing the testing requirements for these students would not give them an unfair advantage. Nor would it encourage teachers to lower their expectations.
What it would do is shift the rhetoric around failing schools. The data would be more meaningful, and we could better use it to gauge actual learning.
In addition, children who are not able to take a grade-level standardized test in English would not be subject to unethical scrutiny and stress.
I want to be held accountable for my students' progress. But accountability needs to be truly reflective of student learning. Giving a severely learning-disabled child a grade-level exam with no modifications, or giving a beginning-level ELL student a reading test in English, does little to measure my success or theirs. Let's work to shift that narrative. Only then will we truly be doing right by our children.