Trying to Make Sense of PSSA/Keystone Scores by Len Rich

The state recently “scored” all public schools in Pennsylvania. The school report card is the School Performance Profile. Schools are given a score from 0-100. Schools that score between 90-100 are at the apex. Schools that score between 80-89 are exceeding state expectations. Scores between 70-79 are at state expectations. Schools between 60-69 are below state expectations in a “warning” or “cautionary” status. Schools below 60 are considered failing. You can see how any PUBLIC school scored at

Approximately 40% of a school’s score is based on standardized test results.  As you review the state scores and local scores a few observations come to mind.

As the grade level increases, proficiency in math across the state decreases. Approximately 2/3 of 7th and 8th grade students are failing the state math test. Several plausible reasons exist. As the students grow older the test becomes more rigorous. Another explanation could be that the test rigor increases beyond the acceleration of the students. Detractors of public education may point to ineffective instruction.

The state has created and endorsed a series of math tests that averages a 42.45% Advanced/Proficient. Therefore, close to 58% of all tested students are below state expectations in math. Either the students and teachers of Pennsylvania are incapable, or the state expects all students to reach an unattainable standard.

Although ELA proficiency averages are higher than math, more than 1/3 of all PA students were basic or below basic across all grade levels. So again the reflection goes to the students, the teachers, the curriculum, or the state expectations and testing mechanism as defined by Pennsylvania Core Standards as assessed on the PSSA.

Science proficiency falls by a 1/3 from 4th to 8th grade, from 76.2% who passed to 57.7%. The reflective process parallels math. What is the cause? Why did almost 20% of our public school students performance worse than they did 4 years ago? If the assumption is made that some things are relative (the students are older and more capable, the teachers in 8th grade are as effective as the teachers in 4th), then the problem is the rigor of the state curriculum and standards. Again, detractors will point to ineffective instruction. Without definitive research, the conclusion will be based upon perspective.

High school students must pass Keystone Exams in literature, biology, and algebra in order to graduate. Between ¼ and 1/3 of all high school students fail any of the 3 keystone exams. On average Keystone Exam proficiency is higher than PSSA proficiency. Of those students who fail any Keystone, approximately 50% will never pass any retest regardless of intervention, remediation, tutoring, etc.

The trend lines are clear. The interpretation of the trend line is up to the reviewer. If you are confident in your school and the teachers, then recognize the hurdle that the current system of standardized tests creates. If you are a critic of public education, then you have evidence that we are less than successful.

To be clear, the intent is not to avoid accountability. The intent is to educate as to the task. If proficiency in gym class were dunking the basketball, how would you do? We could give you extended time, would you pass? Mr. Michael Jordan and Mr. Lebron James could be your teachers, could you then dunk? With a strong curriculum and strong instruction, all students can learn and make progress. We should push our students to achieve all that they can. The finish line should be attainable.

Len Rich is the Director of the Lawrence County Career and Technical Center and also the Superintendent of the Laurel School District in New Castle, PA.

This entry was posted in General News & Information. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply