HARRISBURG - Teachers are right, says Pennsylvania's education secretary, Pedro Rivera - the goalposts keep moving, and it's not fair to them.
Based on standards that in some cases had students learning material that was a full year ahead of where they had been previously, state exams got tougher amid a period of steep decline in state aid. Scores, which have yet to be released publicly, dropped sharply, he said. And teachers will now be judged in part on student scores.
In an interview late last week in Harrisburg, Rivera, a former Philadelphia teacher, principal, and union official who is now the state's top educator, said it brought to mind a "Peanuts" character.
"It's almost like we're Lucy, and pulling the ball away at the last minute," he said.
Don't expect the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, as the state tests are known, to go away. Nevertheless, Rivera repeatedly sounded a theme: "Standardized tests are important, and they're one measure, but there are many other measures we should be using to ascertain whether teaching and learning is happening across the commonwealth."
When Gov. Wolf asked Rivera, previously superintendent of Lancaster schools, to be his education secretary, Rivera blurted out: "Are you sure?"
"I'm an educator," said Rivera, 43. "Definitely not a politician."
If things move slowly in a school system, they can move at a positively glacial pace in state government, Rivera is learning.
"We do want to make some adjustments and alignments, but we do have to work with both the state Board of Education and the legislature to do that," said Rivera, who underscored that the Wolf administration "inherited the process" from Gov. Tom Corbett.
In his seven months on the job, thousands of teachers have told Rivera that school accountability needs to be less about test scores and more about reading levels, attendance, school climate, and other measures, he said. They have concerns about graduation requirements and the state's current system of evaluating schools.
He does, too.
"We need to change accountability for schools to be more holistic," Rivera said. "My greatest frustration is that I can't do it fast enough."
Still, the PSSAs are on the books, and for better or worse, schools and teachers will be judged on them.
Rivera warned against judging the 2015 test against previous years' scores, a theme that the Education Department has sounded before - after a cheating scandal broke in 2011, when tests got harder.
"The 2015 assessment should not and cannot be compared to the 2014 and 2013 assessment," he said. "It's apples and oranges. Schools are still working on aligning curriculum to standards. They're still catching up to teaching what we're assessing."
Philadelphia, like the rest of the state, is bracing itself for dramatic drops in test scores.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. recently wrote all city school employees a letter outlining the lower scores in general terms and cautioning against comparisons.
"Declines in students' performance levels on the new PSSAs do not indicate that students are learning less," Hite wrote.
Hite, in an interview, said that he's not asking educators, parents, and students to discount the emotional toll of steep drops in scores that have historically loomed very large - and which still matter.
But "I'm asking people to take it in its proper context," Hite said. "It is the first administration of an assessment that's based on more rigorous context, a different approach. It has significant writing requirements. For the most part, it is very different content."
Hite said he did not believe Philadelphia educators' performance ratings would suffer, because the state "looks at student growth compared to students statewide, and our performance mirrored statewide trends."
Rivera, a Hunting Park native whose grandmother moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico for a job in a sewing factory, said he was in "constant communication" with Hite.
"My family is directly impacted by what happens in the district," he said. He has nieces and nephews who attend city schools, and visits relatives here multiple times a month.
Philadelphia is where he spent much of his life. After attending Catholic schools in the city, he went to Pennsylvania State University, where he broke his mother's heart by changing his major from engineering to education.
He returned to Philadelphia after graduation, working as a teacher at Finletter School in Olney, settling back into the old neighborhood, teaching traditional classes during the day and GED courses at night.
"My mother was ready to kill me again," Rivera said with a laugh. "She said, 'You went to college, doesn't that mean you move out of the neighborhood?' "
He stayed through stints at Kensington High, as a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers staffer, as principal of Kensington's Sheridan School, and in the district's central office. He didn't leave until he became Lancaster's chief schools officer in 2008.
Rivera knows Philadelphia schools have a long way to go, he said, but is excited by the way Hite is focused on the things he wants the state to look at more closely: not just test scores, but growth and graduation and dropout rates, reading levels, the larger picture of how schools are faring in context.
"That's exactly what schools should be doing," he said.
With less than a month to go before the start of school, Rivera is still unable to report to superintendents what level of state funding they can expect. The legislature is more than a month past its deadline to pass a state budget, and is not expected to reconvene to consider one until Aug. 25.
"It creates a great level of uncertainty," Rivera said. "I would love to be able to say, 'Here's exactly what you're going to be working with. What does the year look like?' "
In places like Philadelphia, where officials have asked state lawmakers for $159 million in new recurring funds, it's especially tense, Rivera said.
"I want for us to be able to better serve them, so that when kids come in on Day 1, they're walking into environments that are conducive to teaching and learning," Rivera said. "The kids aren't going to wait for us. The community's not going to wait for us, and they're making decisions that are important decisions for the next school year."
Rivera's biggest surprise? How politics affects what goes on in classrooms.
"It was amazing to me that there's pushback around wanting to put more resources in schools," he said. "Sometimes you just want to stand on a desk and ask, 'Have you visited some of our schools lately? Have you taken notice as to the conditions created over the past four years with reductions in support?' "