Do standardized tests work and are they worth the cost?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Jake Miller teaches seventh-grade U.S. history, is brutally honest with his students and loves his job.

“Each kid is a light bulb that I get to watch turn on slowly or sometimes in a harsh flick that goes from nothing to full-on beam,” Miller said, “or others that are dimmers that just keep inching up every year that they’re in education, and I really enjoy basking in that light of the students.”

That sounds nice but are his students learning what they need to be learning? Is his teaching effective? To gauge that, the state gives PSSA tests to elementary and middle school students and Keystone Exams to high schoolers.

Matthew Stem is a deputy secretary at the state Department of Education which oversees the tests. He’s also a former teacher, principal and superintendent and a father of school age, test-taking kids.

“Not only does testing in Pennsylvania fulfill federal requirements, but additionally, it gives us snapshots of performance of our schools and we want to be sure that parents are equipped with the knowledge of how students in their local schools are performing,” Stem said.

But Miller, a teacher of the year, says these tests fail in that mission. When it comes to PSSAs, he’d rather pass.

“I fear the attribution of what I call AC/DC students. “They get the test and they just go a, c, d, c, a, c, d, c. If they could listen to AC/DC afterward, they would, but their scores and their lack of care for the test will be attributed to me as an individual,” Miller said. “It makes me look like I’m not working to help them – and that’s wrong.”

Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester) chairs the Education Committee. He complains about the time schools spend on testing and the time it takes to get results.

“Twenty-six of 180 days are spent in either giving these tests or preparing for these tests, so what you’re doing is you’re limiting the rest of the curriculum,” Dinniman said.

“It used to help the teacher understand where the student is in that moment in time,” he said. “It doesn’t really help the student or the teacher if the results don’t come back until the following year.”

Dinniman also has a problem with the money, which he struggles to follow.

“They keep amending it,” he said. “No one bids. It’s just amended, amended, amended. So that contract that was $91.5 ends up at $252 million.”

The senator says since 2008, Pennsylvania has spent nearly $750 million with a Minnesota company called Data Recognition Corporation to administer PSSAs and Keystone Exams. Some of the contracts are no-bid, and some of the paperwork missing, he says. All of that money, Dinniman insists, is misspent.

“We’re spending $80 million a year to test – $1.3 billion over eight years – and we’re not helping these students,” he said. “All we’re doing is stamping failure on them.”

Dinniman suggests Pennsylvania, like seven other states, use the SAT to fulfill federal requirements. He says it’s cheaper, results come back faster, and students could actually use them for college.

Miller also has an idea.

“Teachers are the people who invented tests, so let’s start there,” he said. “Start talking to teachers. Get teachers involved. Right now, we’re on the sidelines. The tests are happening to us and to our kids, not happening with us or with the kids.”

Dinniman has been trying to track the money for more than two years. He says he hasn’t gotten straight answers or forthright contracts on how much is being spent on the tests.

The state’s spending $80 million a year; that doesn’t include what school districts spend administering and preparing for the test.

According to the Education Department, Pennsylvania is in the middle of the pack among states when it comes to spending on these exams.

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