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Vignette: PSSAs and Accountability

sarahfj's picture

On my first day, Mrs. A explained to me that they had a new format of answer reading questions for the PSSAs, which were in six weeks, that had only been given to the teachers last week. Mrs. A was upset about this fact and seemed frustrated. She explained that the school scores had been dropping for a while now and she worried that if they dropped more the school might become a charter and she would be out of a job. This would be particularly difficult for her because she has been teaching so long any might have a hard time getting hired anywhere else because she’s too expensive.

A few weeks later, while the students were in computer lab, Mrs. A and I went to work with the benchmark data. It wasn’t good. Only one student was proficient, a few were partially proficient and the rest were “below basic.” Mrs. D was noticably upset by this. She continually commented that it meant she was a bad teacher. She said she wished someone would come to her class to critique her so that she could improve. Overall, the results were incredibly demoralizing and I felt very sorry for Mrs. A. I also saw results from Mrs. P. A teacher I had worked with last year. Mrs. P had 20% of her students in advanced and 80% in proficient. This confused me. From my perspective, Mrs. P had been an authoritarian and almost ineffective teacher. The students seemed to dislike her and she the class was boring and hard to get through. Mrs. A, to me, seems like the ideal warm demander. She doesn’t have everything perfect, but she creates an incredible classroom environment. I can’t understand why Mrs. P has higher scores than Mrs. A.


Mrs. A had a really hard time getting through the paperwork for the benchmark. It was incredibly confusing and no clear instructions were given. She said to me that it was supposed to be the principal’s work, but that it had fallen on them. She commented on the fact that this happened quite a bit.

Mrs. A told me the next week that she would be going to a workshop. Teachers in the district have to have a certain number of professional development points. She wants to go to extra classes on reading assessment, but she can’t afford it. She believes the current reading objectives are time consuming and subjective. When she came back from the workshop the following week, Mrs. A told me that it was completely pointless. The teacher had just suggested a bunch of online sources for improving teachers. Nothing new had come up for Mrs. A during the class. She was upset about this fact as she genuinely wants to be a better teacher for these kids.

My observations of Mrs. A and her experience with standardized testing are deeply frustrating. It seems almost arbitrary which classroom gets good scores on the tests. Even the best students in Mrs. A's class didn't shine and I can imagine how demoralizing that must be. I was impressed with Mrs. A when she immediately sought to improve herself rather than simply giving up. But, despite Mrs. A's willingness to turn things around, almost no support was given to her to do so. I think this speaks to the struggle teachers experience with test scores. Though they are accountable by them, nothing is being done to improve their scores. They have to take matters into their own hands and sometimes there simply isn't much they can do. 



jccohen's picture


This is such a thoughtful reflection on Mrs. A's situation and her effort to make sense of data that seem not to speak to her felt sense of the teaching and learning in her classroom.  Thickening this plot is the fact that Mrs. P's students scored higher on the tests.  Of course, there are a whole host of factors that aren't visible in this situation, e.g. where were the students of Mrs. A and Mrs. P respectively when they started the year, and especially what kinds of learning went on in these classrooms that are not measured by the extremely limited standardized testing.  Mrs. A's own dedication to improving her practice and helping her students is especially poignant given the limitations of the testing, the heaviness of the testing regime, and the total lack of helpful support she's experiencing.  One ray of hope that I'd add here is that these stories are not only not unusual but they're also becoming more public, and the value of the standardized testing is (finally!) being questioned.  I think it's important for Mrs. A to also get some of these messages: the limitations of the test, the value of other learning, and very slow but, I think, perceptible shift in the educational environment...