Mention the concept of standardized testing, and you’re likely to hear the opinion that teachers focus primarily on getting students ready for the tests.
Peters Township School District’s superintendent begs to differ.
“They happen once a year, and we don’t prepare any differently for them. It’s about making sure our children are exposed to high-quality instruction,” Jeannine French explained. “Good results for children are about adults really improving their craft, day in and day out.”
That type of philosophy apparently is working for her district. According to Eidex FOCUS, an analytical tool designed for school administrators, numbers for 2018 show Peters Township ranking No. 1 statewide for Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test scores and No. 2 for the Keystone Exam.
If you’re not quite familiar with the state’s protocol for standardized testing these days, students in third through eighth grades take the PSSA each year to gauge performance in English language arts and mathematics, and fourth- and eighth-graders are tested additionally on their knowledge of science.
The Keystone Exam tests secondary students’ proficiency in Algebra I, biology and literature, and all results are reported as of their junior year, no matter when they took the test. Peters Township students, for example, take the algebra tests as eighth-graders.
If all of that sounds more than slightly convoluted, that’s why the Pennsylvania School Boards Association entered into a partnership with Eidex LLC to bring its analytical tool to educators.
“They put it into a format to make it very easy for schools to use,” French said. “It puts everybody on the same playing field.”
On that field, Peters Township ends up being tied with some of the state’s other 499 districts and/or nonpublic schools in some categories. Whatever the case, the results were cause for pre-winter break celebration.
“We went to every building, including the bus garage,” Shelly Belcher, district communications coordinator said. “Everybody touches the education of these kids. The bus drivers get them here safely every day. The maintenance men make sure they have a safe and warm place to learn every day. It really was a districtwide celebration.”
That also goes for parents, including Samantha McVicker, PTA president at Bower Hill Elementary School, where her daughter Jillian is in second grade.
“From the time my older daughter was in Bower Hill, they really were trying hard to meet this sort of goal,” she said about Delaney, now a fifth-grader at McMurray Elementary. “So I think that it’s wonderful to feel like we are up there with all the other great school districts in the area.”
The learning environment helps, in her opinion:
“Even though they have put a lot of focus on getting these test scores up and our kids meeting those academic standards, there’s still wonderful balance at the elementary level of fun and play mixed in with the academics.”
Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Murphy reiterated that the academic focus goes far beyond preparing for standardized tests.
“You can’t memorize a list of vocabulary words or memorize formulas. You have to really be able to use the vocabulary words or use formulas for mathematics to be successful,” she explained. “They have to take what they learn and really apply it to problem solve, to create. Rote memorization is completely out the door at this point.”
Agreeing that creativity is a key element was Michael Fisher, assistant to the superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment.
“We’ve tried to put structures in place that give our teachers the opportunity to maximize time with kids on concepts, really allowing them to deliver the curriculum that they worked so hard to write and allowing our kids to shine,” he said, “whether that be through them having a schedule that allows them common planning time or allows them opportunities during the day to intervene with students who might not be getting the concept as quickly.”
If all that adds up to elite standardized testing scores, the district certainly has reason to celebrate. But according to Murphy, no one is resting on his or her laurels.
“As good as this data is right now,” she said, “the teachers are already thinking about how this is going to get even better.”
“There’s never going to be a day where we say, ‘Oh, we’re doing a good enough job for them.’ We want better for them.”