Pennsylvania Senator Calls for Fewer Tests

Published August 31, 2016

Pennsylvania state Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster) says he wants to see fewer standardized tests in the state when the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) takes effect in July 2017.

President Barack Obama signed ESSA into law in December 2015 to replace the No Child Left Behind Act, a law governing national education policy.

The White House website says ESSA “delivers a much-needed fix to the outdated policies of No Child left Behind by rejecting the overuse of standardized tests and one-size-fits all mandates, and instead, empowering states and school districts to develop their own strategies for improvement.”

In Pennsylvania, students in grades 3–8 take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, which are aligned to the Pennsylvania Core Standards (PCS). The State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010, and it replaced Common Core with PCS in 2013. 11th grade students take the Keystone Exam, which is also aligned to PCS.  

“We know that the pendulum has swung too far to the side of standardized testing,” Smucker told Lancaster Online in July. “The ESSA law gives us the opportunity to recalibrate that.”

‘A Very Positive Step’

Smucker says ESSA gives the states more say in standardized testing. 

“ESSA moves more decision-making regarding testing to the state level, a very positive step in the right direction,” Smucker said. “Under the new ESSA, tests will be given in the same subjects and grade levels as before, but states will have more flexibility in the amount of testing time required in schools, as well as how the results are used.”

Smucker says Pennsylvania legislators have been discussing ways to reform the system.

“Since the enactment of ESSA in December, Pennsylvania lawmakers have held joint hearings on what accountability and flexibility will look like [under ESSA] in its day-to-day application,” Smucker said. “Thus far, the House and Senate Education Committees have held four hearings. More are planned for the fall.”

‘Fewer but Better Tests’

Smucker says his goal is to make testing more efficient.

“As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, [I’ve] listened to the concerns of many teachers, parents, students, school board members, and more, [and] I hope to see fewer but better tests,” Smucker said. “This sentiment seems to be shared by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which is also actively exploring ways to shorten the tests for grades 3–8.”

Tests a ‘Legitimate Yardstick’

Smucker says tests are important for measuring accountability and should not be eliminated completely.

“Although there is no perfect test or one-size-fits-all solution, tests are a legitimate yardstick,” Smucker said. “Accountability measures must be consistent over time to be meaningful and part of an array of measures. With input from citizens and educators, the state hopes to move away from a punitive, single-point-in-time assessment that makes up the bulk of the School Performance Profile[, an online database reporting district and school performance results,] to a system that looks at student growth and individual student talents over time.”

James Paul, a senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation in Pennsylvania, says he agrees some form of student evaluation is valuable. 

“There are plenty of critics—teachers unions chief among them—who decry testing as a poor way to measure academic growth,” Paul said. “It may be impossible to design a perfect test, but it is hard to imagine eliminating testing is the solution to Pennsylvania’s educational problems. Tests provide a valuable benchmark to measure student proficiency. They provide prospective parents with important information, and they underscore gaps in proficiency between different groups of children. It would be a mistake to cut down on testing and lower standards altogether.

“Rather than trying to perfect a single method of testing, my priority would be on empowering more parents with the means to choose a school best-suited for the unique needs of their children,” Paul said.

Teresa Mull ([email protected]) is an education research fellow for The Heartland Institute and managing editor of School Reform News.