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Witness in trial over unequal school funding details chasm for resources in poorer districts

Pointing to state testing as a reliable way to measure what students have learned, Pennsylvania's former education leader testified that poorer students generally need more learning resources.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — After pausing for the week of Thanksgiving, testimony in a case that aims to prove that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is unconstitutional resumed Tuesday, with a witness on the stand who went to bat for the state’s standardized tests.

Matthew Stern, who just wrapped up six years at the helm of Pennsylvania’s Department of Education, was called to the stand this morning by attorneys for the William Penn School District and five other school districts that brought the case. He said that the state’s standardized tests were a reliable method of accessing college and career readiness for students.

“I'm confident as a general matter that they're valid and reliable,” Stern said. “I would go a step further and say that when you look at how they compare to other assessments like the National Education Policy (NEP) exam that's administered nationally, for the most part they tend to map well. That's sort of affirming that the results are valid.”

Called PSSAs, or Pennsylvania System of School Assessments, and Keystones, the tests are given to students in grades three through eight, and again in 11th grade. Both tests are designed to measure learning in math, science and reading, and rank students into four categories: advanced, proficient, basic and below basic. 

Stern explained Tuesday that a student’s grade is determined “based on their skill score on a given exam,” and that the test is not designed in such a way that only a certain percentage of students can score advanced or proficient.

“As a general matter, a student who has acquired the knowledge and skills to achieve proficiency on the PSSAs and Keystones is likely to have better professional success in a career than those who do not,” Stern said, noting that as a general matter, the department believes that higher scores are evidence of students being college or career ready.

Importantly, the districts’ overall argument uses poorer districts’ lower PSSA and Keystone scores to support its fight against Pennsylvania’s system of using local property taxes to make up more than half of all funding for public schools across the state, and thus allowing richer neighborhoods to spend an average of $5,000 more per student per year than what is spent in poorer districts.

The plaintiff districts allege that the system tramples the Pennsylvania Constitution's vow to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.” They aim to prove that the state’s GOP-controlled General Assembly is constitutionally obligated to provide more state funds.

At openings, meanwhile, an attorney for Republican legislators called the benchmarks set by PSSAs and Keystones “aggressive” and “aspirational,” and said it wasn’t an accurate learning indicator.

About 800,000 students take the PSSAs and Keystones in a given year, Stern testified Tuesday. 

He also added that the Pennsylvania Department of Education believes that the PSSAs and Keystones are a reliable way to compare performance differences between student subgroups, like those who are economically disadvantaged and those who are not. He noted that the department talked to various state community members, elected officials, business owners and others about what should be on the test to assess college and career readiness. 

He provided one example of why someone in a career would need to be proficient on the math academic standards ranked on the PSSAs and Keystones.

“In the construction industry, that's one of our programs of study that you'll find in many career or tech schools, knowing the geometric measurement of angles and everything associated is important in order to build a safe structure,” he said.

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He said that the state scores are “a critically important measure but not the only measure” that the Pennsylvania Department of Education uses to evaluate the likelihood of student success. 

The former education secretary went on to explain that when a student is testing at a basic level, “additional support is likely needed to ensure that the student is able to engage in further in their studies.”

“Scoring at a ‘basic’ level means a student has some knowledge of the performance skills and concepts at a given level. But at the basic level, additional support is likely needed to ensure that the student is is able to engage in further studies,” Stern said. “Especially with with mathematics — these skills and competencies build over time and so if they're not addressed, particularly early on when a student is at a basic level, there's a likelihood that students are going to have trouble engaging, which means they're going to fall further behind as more content and deeper content continues to be encountered each year.”

He continued: “A student at the below-basic level is, to use a layman's term, is at high risk of not being able to be successful in whatever particular coursework is being assessed,” Stern said.

Stern told the courtroom Tuesday that the department operates on the belief that with the proper education every child is capable of learning, even if they are poor, Black, Latino or learning English as a second language. The aforementioned groups often test lower, however, on standardized tests and are often found clustered in poorer school districts.

“There's a greater correlation between low wealth districts and students of color,” Stern said Tuesday, when compared with those in higher wealth districts.

The department believes “that students in poverty need more resources,” Stern explained, noting that there is research to suggest that students have less exposure to vocabulary when they live in a high-poverty home, which means they need increased resources at school to stay on track with their better off peers.

“My experience is knowing that low wealth districts are almost often students with higher percentages of poverty. My experience has been that they [these districts] do require greater resources to meet their students' needs,” Stern said.

The first witness to take the stand in a lawsuit, David McAndrew, the superintendent of Panther Valley School District since July 2020, stressed in testimony earlier this month that children in his poor, rural school district struggled with the state’s standardized tests, but that the district couldn’t afford to hire additional reading support aides or other roles who could help children catch up. The superintendent said that the district’s children test below the state averages “every single year.”

Lawyers for Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler and GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman said that “PSSA and Keystone exam scores have no tangible effect on students grades or standing.”

The trial is being held in person in Harrisburg, with proceedings livestreamed on YouTube where they attracted more than 90 viewers Tuesday. Public attendance is not permitted due to Covid-19 precautions. The trial is expected to last into January 2022, with a one-week break in between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

An attorney with the school districts did not identify himself before court proceedings Tuesday, and public court documents do not indicate who was tasked with questioning.

Dilworth Paxson attorney Patrick Northen spoke at opening statements for Bryan Cutler while Anthony Holtzman of K&L Gates also spoke for Jake Corman. 

Katrina Robson, an attorney for the districts with the firm O'Melveny & Myers, made the opening statements for the plaintiff school districts. The six school districts are joined as plaintiffs by individual parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and Pennsylvania’s chapter of the NAACP.

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