WEST CHESTER (August 14) – State Senator Andy Dinniman, Minority Chair of the Senate Education Committee, released the following statement in response to Governor Tom Wolf’s announcement this morning on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and the administration’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Consolidated State Plan:

“While I’d be the first to welcome any real reduction in required standardized testing and their exorbitant expenses on our schools, both Governor Wolf and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera either glossed over or outright ignored a number of crucial points in their press conference.

First, remember that students in grades 4 through 8 will still spend six days on mandated PSSA testing and students in grade 3 will still spend an entire school week on them! In addition, the notion that such a minimal cut in test taking will result in a large reduction to test preparation is clearly flawed, since teacher evaluation is still based on test results. As was explicitly mentioned in the press conference, our schools and teachers spend days and weeks not just teaching to this test, but teaching to multiple layers of redundant testing imposed on our students. This morning’s announcement and the state ESSA plan do nothing to amend that.

In fact, for 8th graders there won’t even be a reduction in testing, as the administration would have them take both the PSSA and the Keystone Exams (to bank the results), meaning the two days of PSSAs that were supposedly eliminated will only be offset by two more days of Keystone testing.

Most importantly, it is downright disingenuous for the governor and administration to tout modest reductions in standardized testing without even mentioning the Keystone Exams.

Keep in mind, this administration continues to forge full-steam ahead in pouring significant sums of money into and requiring schools to dedicate days of vital classroom learning time to the Keystone Exams, while they can’t even tell us what the purpose is. It’s not for graduation, as we’re creating alternative pathways to get a diploma. It’s not for remediation because nowhere in the ESSA is there such a requirement and typically, Keystone Exam results are not received until the next school year – after the students have moved on – anyway.

It should also be noted that although the governor said this morning that the Keystone Exams have been eliminated for students in vocational and technical schools, that is not the case. Students in vocational and technical schools continue to take the Keystones. The only difference is they are just not required for graduation. Still, so much time, money, and energy are spent on them. So, again, what is the purpose?

If it’s for accountability, Pennsylvania could easily substitute the College Board’s Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in place of the Keystones and immediately realize a number of tremendous fiscal and educational benefits. We know that 72 percent of high school students already take the SAT, the SAT is aligned with our curriculum, the federal government will accept the SAT as it recently has in our neighboring state of Delaware, and  SAS, the state’s vendor for measuring growth is capable of handling the SAT. Furthermore, using the SAT in place of the Keystones will open up college scholarship and post-secondary opportunities to thousands of students in financially distressed districts who may not take it on their own.

So far, Pennsylvania has paid $742 million to one contractor, Data Recognition Corporation, for the Keystone Exams, and we don’t even know the additional costs related to the refinement of the tests. It is estimated that the Keystone will result in an unfunded mandate on local school districts of approximately $300 to $500 million a year.

On the other hand, it’s estimated that this year, while we are facing a funding crisis, using the PSATs (to establish a baseline score) instead of the Keystones will save $4 million.

The ESSA plan itself states, “all long-term goals are predicated on predictable levels of federal and state investments in education programming.” However, the Commonwealth is currently in dire financial straits, being forced to borrow to close vast funding gaps in last year’s budget and without a finalized state budget and revenue plan for this year. At the federal level, there is no telling what the future holds, but heightened levels of funding for education seem highly unlikely. In short, there is no indication whatsoever that the adequate and predictable funds necessitated for the ESSA will magically materialize. And yet, we continue to exhaust the money we do have on meaningless standardized testing and data gathering, instead of putting those funds where they matter most – in the classroom.

It seems to me that a better and more conservative approach would be to invest every dime and every minute of time where we get the most bang for the buck – in the classroom. And when we do utilize standardized testing, use tests, like the SATs, that are already widely available, cost-effective, and have real-world applications in assisting students in moving on to the post-secondary level. To do anything else, seems like we’re just measuring the rising waters on a sinking ship.

Finally, I continue to challenge the Department of Education to embark on an open and constructive dialogue with parents, students, teachers, and legislators on the ESSA – rather than talking behind closed doors with the same old group of staff and bureaucrats. 

I have great concerns that, under the ESSA, the department is interfering with the legal rights of parents by penalizing schools with high “opt out” rates. In fact, it should be noted that in my district and the Philadelphia suburbs some of the best schools often have the highest opt-out rates.

In addition, I have serious and growing concerns that the department has taken to governing via bureaucratic action and, in such, continually ignores the authority, action, and intent of the legislature.  When we passed Act 1 of 2016, putting a moratorium on the Keystone Exams, the department willfully ignored the law, instead utilizing its own legal interpretation – one that instructed school districts to keep giving the tests. As if it knew the will and intent of the law, better than the legislators, like myself, who helped write it! Furthermore, the department even implies in the ESSA plan that they intend to give the Keystones to students for at least a decade, to track performance for entire generation, regardless of the wishes or will of duly elected state lawmakers.

This appears to be a continuing pattern. The department seems at best aloof and at worst insubordinate regarding its interactions with the legislature. When 47 of 50 senators made it clear that they supported ending the Keystones in favor of using the SAT, the department replied with silence. And after numerous hearings, correspondence, and legislation on the subject, nowhere in the development of the ESSA was the possibility of using the SAT as a viable and feasible alternative to the Keystones remotely considered, even in what the department said was a series of meetings with stakeholders.

Even this morning, neither my staff nor I were notified of the press conference. And in the two months leading up the release of the ESSA, the secretary made no effort to directly communicate with either the Majority Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Senator Eichelberger, or me.

How are we to work with a department that seems hell bent on implementing a plan that wastes taxpayer dollars, hinders student progress, ignores parents, undermines teachers, and has no real purpose except to collect volumes of data and give massive contracts to testing companies?

This morning, the governor and the department also failed to tell residents that they can submit public comment to the ESSA plan online.

I encourage residents, parents, and taxpayers to complete the online survey here or submit letters to RA-edESSA@pa.gov by August 31.”