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In Pa., test scores, egos take hits

Marcie Lichtman says her 14-year-old daughter had always scored in the "advanced" range on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, administered to third through eighth graders.

Marcie Lichtman says her 14-year-old daughter had always scored in the "advanced" range on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, administered to third through eighth graders.

But when last year's scores in English/Language Arts and math arrived in the mail last week, the now-ninth grader was surprised to see she scored only "proficient."

"I needed to administer a little first aid to her self-esteem by showing her an article and video explaining what is going on," said Lichtman, who lives in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia.

A lot of parents are getting out the psychic Band-Aids as the state Department of Education releases drastically lower scores in Pennsylvania's main school-achievement exam.

Under new, more rigorous guidelines, only 42.5 percent of students in the state scored "proficient" in English/Language Arts, and in math, 26.1 percent, the department said Tuesday.

Overall, the state reported that math scores were 35 percent lower, and English scores 9 percent lower, than last year's.

Philadelphia, which released its scores earlier this month, said 32 percent of students passed English exams and 17 percent passed math exams. That's compared with results released last year, when 42 percent passed English and 45 percent passed math.

Education officials for months have been warning parents, students, and educators about the plummeting results, which they say occurred because the test was changed to align to the tougher Pennsylvania Core Standards.

The standards "reflect a higher academic rigor than prior academic standards, and really focused on college and career readiness," said Matthew Stem, deputy secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The new curriculums have been taught since the fall of 2013, after the state Board of Education adopted the Pennsylvania Core Standards. Science tests, which are administered in fourth and eighth grades, were unchanged.

Stem noted that under the heightened standards, some material is being tested a full grade level earlier, with more emphasis on analysis and complex problem-solving.

Scoring has been made more difficult as well, with new cutoffs or "cut scores" for the test ratings: "below basic," "basic," "proficient," and "advanced."

The math curriculum has a "much greater sense of depth," and English has more emphasis on nonfiction and a deeper analysis of text, Stem said.

In the West Chester Area School District, scores dropped an average of 24 points in math and four points in English, although they remained above the state average, said Superintendent James Scanlon, an outspoken critic of standardized tests.

"It has been really difficult to use any of this data for anything productive," he said. "Testing has become so insane that I am not sure if anyone in the community even cares about it anymore."

Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters Pennsylvania, said people need to have a "down-to-earth perspective" and understand the reason for the lower scores.

Still, she said, she thinks some parents are going to "freak out" about "perceived issues of diminished performance," and question the value of standardized tests.

State officials stressed in information for parents, students, and educators that the new standards have been taught only for one year, and that "with time, and as student and teacher familiarity with the PA Core grows, student performance should steadily improve."

Teachers, whose evaluations are based partly on student achievement, will not be rated this year on their students' PSSA test scores. And schools with students in kindergarten through eighth grade will not get School Performance Profiles - grades of zero to 100 - this year, because those also incorporate PSSA scores.

While Lichtman was able to calm her daughter, she said the teen still is worried that her ranking will hurt her chances of getting into her preferred high school, as some Philadelphia magnet schools require high scores.

"I wonder how many kids, whose parents might not be familiar with all that is going on, are getting a talking to or worse because the parents think their child isn't working as hard as before," Lichtman said.