A Pennsylvania School Report Card

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Executive Summary

Politicians and school officials frequently point to student performance  on state tests as a primary measure of the quality of public education.  According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) “is a standards based criterion-referenced assessment used to measure a student’s attainment of the academic standards while also determining the degree to which school programs enable students to attain proficiency of the standards.”

Unfortunately, exams such as the PSSA fail to adequately inform parents, teachers, and the taxpaying public about the quality of their schools.  Indeed, a comparison between Pennsylvania’s achievement test results with those reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that the PSSA significantly inflates the numbers of public school pupils who are deemed to be performing at or above grade level.

With few exceptions, schools are engaged in massive social promotion of children who are not academically proficient.  Even the very best schools promote upwards of 10% of their children to levels for which they are not prepared.  In the worst schools, more than 95% are improperly promoted, based on the NAEP standard of proficiency.

The PSSA reports, on average, 1.82 times the percentage of students “proficient” in reading and math as does the NAEP.  With an 82% test inflation, Pennsylvania falls just below the median of the 50 states test standards.  Pennsylvania’s reported proficiencies seem to foster a complacent attitude among stakeholders in Pennsylvania’s public schools.  Were more accurate comparisons available, parents, school officials, politicians, and taxpayers might be more alarmed and seek stronger remedies.  In cases where the proficiencies reported by the PSSA are in the 80% to 90% range, they are seen as a matter of pride, yet the equivalent NAEP scale proficiencies—a range of 50% to 60% proficient—are troubling.

This policy brief used a mapping procedure to convert PSSA test results into ones consistent with the NAEP.  This provides stakeholders with more realistic performance results.  They are, however, also more alarming.

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David V. Anderson, is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, who spent his first career as a research physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory working on the magnetic fusion energy project. In more recent years he has been active both in the financial industry and as a public policy analyst- most recently for Jersey City, NJ. He is currently both an entrepreneur developing Asora Education Enterprises (AsoraEducation.com), and is the Education Fellow of the Ocean State Policy Research Institute in Rhode Island.

The Commonwealth Foundation is an independent, non-profit research and educational institute that develops and advances public policies based on the nation’s founding principles of limited constitutional government, economic freedom, and personal responsibility for one’s actions. More information is available at www.CommonwealthFoundation.org