Dianne Salerni author Dianne Salerni author Dianne Salerni books Dianne Salerni blog Dianne Salerni Appearances Dianne Salerni contact Dianne Salerni teachers
Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | The Tail that Wags the Dog in Pennsylvania: the PSSA

The Tail that Wags the Dog in Pennsylvania: the PSSA

If you want a funny and yet completely on-the-mark and disturbing look at standardized testing in our country, you should skip my post and watch this John Oliver clip instead. It’s long, but worth watching all the same. (Hey, my post is long too.)


I’m going to tell you my personal experience with standardized testing, specifically the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment).

The test is constantly changing, so for teachers and students, it’s a moving target. We get a list of “eligible content” and a few “sample questions,” but we never know what our students will be asked to do from year to year. The teachers never see the test unless we sneak peeks over our students’ shoulders while they take it.

From the moment the test booklets enter our building, we go into high-security lockdown. In my building, teachers are recruited to put barcode labels on the test booklets, but there are always administrators in the room watching to make sure no teacher opens a booklet to see the questions inside.

Proctors for the test are required to watch a training video, pass a test, and sign a security document. One of my favorite parts of the video were the DO and DON’T scenarios.

DON’T: A teacher stands at a podium, monitoring students. A boy raises his hand. The teacher walks over and stands beside him.

The boy says, “I don’t understand what the question is asking.”

The teacher puts a hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember the strategies we used in class?” He nods. “Try one of those.” She pats him on the back and returns to the podium.

DO: A teacher stands at a podium, monitoring students. A boy raises his hand. The teacher walks over and stands a distance away, so she doesn’t have a view of the test.

The boy says, “I don’t understand what the question is asking.”

The teacher says, “I can’t help you,” and returns to the podium.

I always wondered why she didn’t just stay at her podium and give him the finger when he raised his hand. The attitude was pretty much the same, and it would’ve saved her some steps.

The state testing agency sent agents out for surprise security inspections. They might peer at you through the window or walk in, sit down, and watch you for the entire test period. One of the things they would be looking for is any deviation from the test instructions.

We had to read from a script. For many years, the first section of the PSSA consisted of a Math test with a multiple-answer section and TWO open-ended questions. The directions called for the teacher to have the students open their test booklets to see the multiple-answer section and the FIRST open-ended problem. In the directions, we read that there were TWO open-ended problems, but since each one was two pages long with multiple parts, many students incorrectly assumed that both problems were contained on the facing pages they were looking at. The directions did not allow us to tell them to turn the page and see that there were more questions.

As you can imagine, many, many students accidentally skipped the second open-ended problem. After years of teachers complaining to the state, the PSSA directions finally changed. In my last year of teaching, we weren’t allowed to show the students any of the pages. We just wrote the page numbers on the board (pages 6-9) and left the kids to find the problems on their own.

If we saw a student accidentally skip part of the test, we were not allowed to tell them. Whenever they indicated they were finished, we had to take the test. Even if they’d only spent 15 minutes on a test that was meant to take an hour. (And there’s always one of those kids in every class.)

Students are instructed NOT to talk about the test questions to each other, to their teachers, or to their parents. As John Oliver says in the video, the test has all the transparency of Fight Club. As teachers, we tried to prepare the students as best we could, based on the stated eligible content. We taught fifth graders both climax and turning point, because we never knew which term would be on the test. We made them distinguish between third person limited and third person omniscient, even though some adult writers can’t tell the difference. (Seriously, I’ve seen Big 5 published books making mistakes in that area.) The PA Common Core mistakenly uses the term Point of View both in its correct sense (1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person) and also as a synonym for Author’s Perspective, so that’s what we teach them, even though it is wrong and confusing to the students. And when a math open-ended question says they can either show or explain their work – we’ve never got a straight answer out of the state whether points are taken off if they don’t do both.

So that’s the test. School funding rides on it. Teacher evaluations and salaries are hinged on it. And now kids in my school district will be getting less physical education, music, art, computers, science, history, and geography so they can work harder to prepare for it because their scores have been trending down.

I’ll ask my daughter’s question again: “Do you think it might be the test that’s to blame?”

16 Responses to The Tail that Wags the Dog in Pennsylvania: the PSSA

  1. mshatch says:

    That’s so ridiculously stupid on so many levels I can only wonder that you lasted as long as you did. It also sounds like those tests are designed to help kids fail rather than help them succeed.

  2. It’s sad that teachers can’t teach anymore, they just have to prepare kids for testing from day one. What kid is going to learn to love knowledge that way?

  3. I hated testing when I was a teacher. I taught in New Jersey, and it wasn’t any better than it is in PA.

  4. That is beyond extreme. Glad they had nothing like it when I went to school. Bet you’re glad you don’t have to deal with it anymore, although your daughter still does.

  5. Tiana Smith says:

    This is so ridiculous. As a parent, it makes me furious. So basically, teachers can’t help their students learn anymore? Because forgive me for thinking that’s what they were supposed to do. This system is so broken, so they just push harder at doing the things that aren’t working. This is what happens when politicians and bureaucracy take over and leave teachers powerless. Grrrrrrr.

  6. I’d like to make a comment, but the utter stupidity I have just read is leaving me speechless.

  7. J E Oneil says:

    I already saw the clip so I’ll read your post :).

    Seriously, “I can’t help you.”? Then why did you come over? Everything about state testing is stupid and counterproductive. It only makes children learn one thing: how to take the test. And guess what? College and the real world are nothing like it.

  8. Lexa Cain says:

    I think the nonsensical rules, unhelpful answers the teachers (are forced to) give, tricky ways of hiding parts of the test, and the kids receiving absolutely no help is a perfect preparation for being in the real world job market. Bosses and co-workers won’t help you, explain things, or warn you about pitfalls. But they sure blame you and rake you over the coals if something goes wrong. In most businesses, you have to be twice as smart as your superiors/managers, figure things out and avert disasters that they are responsible for, AND be a complete brown-noser at the same time. (At least those are the experiences I went through working at Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue firms in NYC for 10+ years.)

  9. salarsen says:

    I saw this, Dianne. Think I even shared it on FB. So unbelievable. As we’ve discussed before, I have a lot of elementary and junior high school teacher friends. They talk about this endlessly, and I feel so bad for them. As parents, we believe our kids are at school to learn. That is not always the case. Some of this testing is basically using the kids as lab rats to ‘test’ the teachers. Evaluation my butt. The teachers are giving WAY too much to do with under expressed limited resources. The powers that be toss kids of all learning and educational levels in one classroom and actually expect these poor teachers to get something done. AND don’t even get me started about the kiddos with behavior issues being thrown in there, too. ‘No Child Left Behind’ is a joke.

    Just yesterday, my 5th grader came home complaining. “I can’t believe all this stupid testing they’re making us do right now. We’ve been doing it once a week for like six weeks. And my teacher tells us not to worry about the grade we get. It doesn’t affect us as students.” He shakes his head. “So dumb. And, Mom, they made us do science today. We haven’t done science since December, because we switched to Social Studies in January.” This is a kid who gets really good grades and is all stressed out about ‘not performing’ for his teacher.

    I want to pull my hair out.

  10. Julie Dao says:

    I agree with the commenter who said it seems like these tests are designed to help students fail, not succeed. Absolutely ridiculous. It’s not a surprise to me why the U.S. is so far behind the rest of the world in education.

  11. As a kid taking the tests, I never minded them. Nor do my kids. They actually look forward to them because the school gives the kids free breakfast on those days. (Kids know their priorities 🙂 ).
    As to the testing itself, I’m not a huge fan of standarized anything in the learning system (a partial Montessori supporter), but understand that it makes things easier for the educational heads. As to the test, I don’t find it really horrible for the kids. Just an irritation (or joy in so far as breakfast). But that teachers’ salaries and school finances are affected by it is ridiculous. I probably have a slightly different view on things after being in Germany, where they take this to the next degree. Lol! I’m planning a massive post myself in a few weeks to rant about that one.
    Oh, another teacher I know gives the kids a small treat at the end of testing days…I think it’s to calm herself as much as the kids.

  12. ChemistKen says:

    Fortunately, the only teaching I’ve done has been in college, where we don’t have to worry about these kind of things.

  13. Amymak says:

    Oh my goodness. I just read your last two points – “burn, baby, burn.” Wow. I’m glad you wrote; we need teachers and parents to speak up – to WRITE about this. The firing of the staff and custodial cleaning? This makes me so angry. It’s so infuriating that art and P.E. are always the first to be eliminated, that “learning” gets pushed aside for the sake of “teaching toward the standardized test.” Love your daughter’s observation. Spot on.

  14. Everything about this is insane and inane, and it’s blatantly obvious that no teachers were involved, at any point, in creating this mess. How in the world are they supposed to know that they’ve prepared students for a test when they’re not allowed to look at the test? How is any of this supposed to educate anyone? And looking at all this, why is it treated as such a mystery why education in this country is going downhill so quickly?

    I’m so very glad that I’ll never have kids so I won’t have to deal with all this crap. >_<

  15. Robin says:

    That John Oliver video was on the mark. Funny and sad at the same time. (I love how he tackles the difficult subjects and makes his point so thoroughly.) That video of the girl crying in front of the board because she’s an excellent student who hasn’t tested well… I nearly started crying watching. I could easily see myself as the student if I were being tested the way these kids are.

    Grade school, middle school, and high school are hard enough. Ask anyone in our age group… they are carrying around some scars from that time period. Ask them if they were caused by Standardized Testing and the answer would be “No.” I simply cannot imagine trying to maintain positive self image in that situation. Vomiting should not be considered a “normal” part of the testing procedure.

    Lastly, I find it impossible to believe with the outcry from kids to parents to teachers that this isn’t purposeful and intentionally harmful to our kids. Yes, I said I believe that Common Core is deliberately harmful to our kids. I’m amazed you held on as long as a teacher as you did…. and you didn’t get migraines. It’s a miracle really.

  16. Robin says:

    I just posted a rather long comment. Did you get it?