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.