Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Huffington Post

TESD ranks 4th in Pennsylvania for PSSA results but is it time to opt-out of standardized testing?

Spring is PSSA time for public schools in Pennsylvania and the results are in for 2013. The Pittsburgh Business Times has published their 2013 Guide of Western Pennsylvania Schools, which lists the rankings of all school districts in Pennsylvania. The analysis of the school district performance is based on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Exam results. According to their website, the formula for the ranking takes into account three years of PSSA test scores in math, reading, writing and science. They look at three years of scores, with the current year given the most weight. The rankings do not denote the overall quality and performance of the school district, only the PSSA scores.

In the ‘Top 15’ school districts category in Pennsylvania, Allegheny County was the number one county with six school districts represented followed by Chester County with three school districts (Unionville-Chadds Ford, T/E and Great Valley), Delaware County with three school districts (Radnor, Wallingford-Swarthmore and Rose Tree Media) and Montgomery County with one school district (Lower Merion).

For 2013 rankings, Upper St. Clair School Districts holds onto its first place title for the ninth year in a row, with another Allegheny County school district, Mt. Lebanon moving into second place. This is the third year that I have tracked the top 15 school districts and in the chart below, you will note that Tredyffrin Easttown Township School District has dropped from its 2011 second place, to third place in 2012, to fourth place in 2013. The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District dropped their ranking from second in 2012 to third in 2013. Other main line school districts, Radnor Township School District dropped from fourth to sixth for 2013, Lower Merion dropped a level in rankings and Great Valley School District moved up from 14th to 13th place for 2013. Looking at other area school districts, Downingtown School District improved their rankings, from 25th to 24th and Phoenixville School District continues to drop in rankings, for 2o13 listed as 98th.

A Pennsylvania school district that places in the top 15 or 20 out of 500 districts statewide based on the PSSA exams is an achievement for which students, parents, teachers and administrators can all be proud. PSSA scores is viewed by many as a reliable predictor of future success. As a tool for student assessment, the PSSA exam helps measure and provide useful information of what students are learning. The PSSAs measure the performance of the entire class and provide of measurement of how an overall class is performing. But how important are PSSA exams, beyond bragging rights of a school district. Do children (and teachers) need this level of pressure to ‘measure up’?

Based on the varying socioeconomic advantages and disadvantages levels of school districts across the state, I don’t know how fair it is judge the work of entire school districts based on a series of standardized tests. Although evaluation is an important tool in learning, high-stakes tests, such as the PSSA exam, are being used to label students (as well as teachers and school districts). It is no wonder that there is rebellion among some parents not to allow their children to participate in the PSSA testing process.

I did not know that in Pennsylvania, a parent has the right to have their children exempted from taking the PSSA exams under PA Code Title 22 Chapter 4, Section 4 (d)(5):

“If upon inspection of State assessments parents or guardians find the assessment in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied upon written request to the applicable school district superintendent, charter school chief executive officer or AVTS director.”

The grounds for the exemption are “religious” but the parents do not have to explain what their faith is, what about the testing is in violation of their faith, or anything else. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, if you believe that it is morally wrong to put your kids through the ordeal of a week of testing, that’s good enough.

Timothy Slekar, head of the Department of Education, Penn State-Altoona and his wife decided to opt out of the PSSA exam for their son. Slekar included a copy of the letter in an article written for Huffington Post that can be used in Pennsylvania public schools by “people of most religious affiliations”. Slekar encourages readers “to copy, to cut, and to paste any or all portions of this letter for your own use in freeing a child from the pain of high-stakes standardized testing.” To read Slekar’s article and opt-out letter, click here.

Top 15 School Districts in Pennsylvania for 2013

2013 2012 2011 School District (County)
1 1 1 Upper St. Clair School District (Allegheny)
2 5 6 Mt. Lebanon School District (Allegheny)
3 2 3 Unionville-Chadds Ford School District (Chester)
4 3 2 Tredyffrin-Easttown School District (Chester)
5 6 5 North Allegheny School District (Allegheny)
6 4 4 Radnor Township School District (Delaware)
7 7 9 Hampton Township School District (Allegheny)
8 10 12 South Fayette Township School District (Allegheny)
9 8 7 Lower Merion School District (Montgomery)
10 9 8 Central Bucks School District (Bucks)
11 13 15 Wallingford-Swarthmore School District (Delaware)
12 12 11 Fox Chapel Area School District (Allegheny)
13 14 13 Great Valley School District (Chester
14 11 11 Peters Township School District (Washington)
15 19 19 Rose Tree Media School District (Delaware)



Toll Road Privatization – Is this the Answer to State’s Infrastructure Problems?

Huffington Post today contained a timely article on the privatization of highways and their tolling, Toll Road Privatization: As Ohio Considers It, Indiana Serves As Cautionary Tale.

The article discusses that state’s across the country are looking at privatizing highways as a way to finance necessary infrastructure repairs. One interesting tolling concept discussed would privatize Interstate 95 and the Capital Beltway around my hometown, Washington, DC. Partnering with private investors using an 80-year lease, the plan would develop a ‘HOT’ (high occupancy toll) lanes. Here’s way the plan would work – if you are a commuter with 3 people in a car you won’t have to pay a toll but if you are commuting with 2 people, you would pay a toll to ride in the fast lane. This plan would guarantee revenue for the length of the lease. A HOV lane typically requires 2 persons in the car but in this instance, a HOT lane rewards those commuters with 3 or more persons — no toll.

Jeremy Roebuck of MontCo Memo, a blogger writing on Montgomery County politics and communities writes an interesting post today on the Montgomery County politics of the tolling of 422. Looks like there are some Montgomery County politicians who believe to support 422 tolling could be their poison pill in November. Here’s Roebuck’s post:

MontCo Memo, – posted by Jeremy Roebuck

For whom 422 tolls?

Well, that didn’t take long…

A week ago Montgomery County’s commissioner candidates adopted a mostly wait-and-see attitude regarding the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s plan to toll 422 to fund much-needed, congestion-easing improvements. This week, all four have come out against the plan.

Incumbent Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr. and his Republican ticket running mate Jenny Brown, a Lower Merion Commissioner, released a statement Wednesday declaring their opposition. Said Brown: “The taxpayers have already paid for route 422, and tolling in this circumstance is not appropriate.”

Brown has a history of being a fiscally conservative hawk on Lower Merion’s board of supervisors, so no surprises there. Castor, who said last week he wasn’t crazy about the idea but needed more information, joined Brown in full-throated condemnation Wednesday.

Not to be outdone, Democratic candidates State Rep. Josh Shapiro and Whitemarsh Supervisor Leslie Richards released a joint-statement of their own, also poo-pooing the prospects of tolls: “We are committed to reducing congestion on our roadways–particularly along the Rt. 422 corridor. While we are in search of workable solutions to address our infrastructure needs, we are opposed to the Rt. 422 tolling plan.” Last week, Richards said she looked forward to seeing what the DVRPC was going to propose.

It was always going to be a tough sell. To pass, the DVRPC’s plan needs approval first from the state assembly — which must approve legislation allowing locally run tolling authorities in the state. Then, county commissioners had to come together in Montgomery, Chester and Berks Counties to create such an authority here.

And while many state and local politicos agree in private that the tolling proposal is the only way 422’s congestion will be eased any time soon, it’s become political poison among the area’s cash-strapped commuters.

Don’t think for a second those political factors haven’t weighed on the minds of the DVRPC’s planners. Unveiling the plan during a county election year is a gamble as it is sure to become an issue in commissioners’ campaigns in the three counties. But putting it off another year, would drop the question right in the middle of State Assembly races. (State Rep. Warren Kampf, R., Chester, has already shown the power of taking a strong anti-toll stance. He unseated incumbent Paul Drucker in part on a platform opposed to tolling.)

Still, Joseph M. Hoeffel III — vice chair of MontCo’s commissioners’ board, head of the DVRPC, and one of the tolling plan’s chief proponents — thinks there’s still room to navigate these tricky political waters.

Then again, he’s not running for re-election.

Remembering our 40th President . . . President Ronald Reagan Would be 100 Years Old Today

Today, February 6, 2011 marks what would have been former President Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. Falling on the same day as America’s mega-event, Super Bowl Sunday, a tribute to the 40th president will be displayed on the massive jumbotron at Cowboys Stadium in Texas just before kickoff.

Whether you considered yourself a Reaganite or were opposed to his conservative principles, you always knew that President Reagan loved his country and his presidency was filled with eloquence and passion.

In 1976, then President Reagan offered these words, “Today the majority of Americans want what those first Americans wanted: a better life for themselves and their children; a minimum of government authority. Very simply, they want to be left alone in peace and safety to take care of the family by earning an honest dollar and putting away some savings . . .

“This may not sound too exciting, but there is something magnificent about it. On the farm, on the street corner, in the factory and in the kitchen, millions of us ask nothing more, but certainly nothing less, than to live our own lives according to our values – at peace with ourselves, our neighbors and the world.”

Reagan’s words are as important today as they were thirty-five years ago. Is not this what we all want, to “live our own lives according to our values – at peace with ourselves, our neighbors and the world”?

Reagan often spoke of the “shining city on a hill,” a phrase coined by John Winthrop, a pilgrim who arrived in America in search of freedom. Describing his own vision in his 1989 farewell address, Reagan said “it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”

It makes you wonder what President Reagan would have to say about our world in 2011. A couple of days ago, I found this interesting essay by Ken Blackwell, What Would Reagan Do about Egypt? Although I may not have agreed with all of President Reagan’s values, he left an indelible mark on American history. Reading this thoughtful essay, reminded me of the why we need to remember our 40th president. Happy Birthday Ronald Reagan!

What Would Reagan Do About Egypt?
By Ken Blackwell, Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration & the Family Research Council

We’re about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. As much as I would like to praise that great and good man, I have to wonder what he would do about Egypt?

Would he shepherd Egypt along the path to democracy — as he did successfully with South Korea and the Philippines? Or would he maintain a “constructive engagement” policy with Mubarak as he attempted with the apartheid regime in South Africa? That policy frankly failed, and we had to await F.W. de Klerk moves to release Nelson Mandela and allow the African National Congress to compete in democratic elections.

Reagan’s greatest success — of course — was in pressing for reforms behind the Iron Curtain, and for publicly demanding that Soviet ruler Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” A key part of Reagan’s success was his recognition that religious liberty was central to ending Communist totalitarianism.

As a candidate for president, Reagan had watched, as indeed the world watched, in awe as the Polish Pope John Paul II celebrated an outdoor Mass in Warsaw. One million Poles cried out “We Want God!” Reagan, unashamed, teared up. “I want to work with him,” he said. And how he did.

As president, Ronald Reagan ordered his CIA Director William Casey to make sure that Poland’s Solidarity union got fax machines and copiers — surreptitiously via the Vatican’s Washington embassy. Reagan would not allow Solidarity to be crushed by Poland’s Communist puppet regime.

Reagan publicly confronted the Soviet dictators, and loudly demanded they keep the agreements they made on human rights in the Helsinki Accords. Deep in the Gulag, Natan Scharansky heard of Reagan’s calling the USSR an “evil empire.” He tapped out the words to fellow prisoners — zeks — on the plumbing pipes. It gave them all such great heart.

Reagan understood the importance of religion behind the Iron Curtain. He kept a list of Jewish refuseniks in his suit coat pocket and would press Mikhail Gorbachev to release them from the Gulag at every meeting. He worked behind the scenes, as well, to gain the free emigration of the Siberian Seven, a family of Russian Pentecostals who had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

When he went to West Berlin in 1987, President Reagan rejected the advice of virtually all of his counselors to take that ringing phrase — Tear Down This Wall! — out of his speech. Romesh Ratnesar, an editor for TIME Magazine recognized these four words as the short, sharp hammer strokes they were.

Reagan also spoke of the radio tower built by the East German Communist regime on their side of the Wall. It was intended to overshadow all the old church steeples in that captive city. Reagan noted a “defect” in the sphere atop the tower. The Communists sought to paint it out, to blot it with acid, even to sandblast it, but the defect remained. When the sun struck that sphere, Reagan said, it made the sign of the cross.

No other American president in 200 years had publicly invoked the Sign of the Cross. And when, shortly thereafter, the Wall came down, the Iron Curtain was cast away, TIME Magazine editors, of course, named Mikhail Gorbachev their Man of the Decade.

What we learned from Ronald Reagan can guide us as we deal with Egypt. Obviously, Mubarak must go. But can we find a partner with whom we can do business in Cairo?

Early indications are not favorable. The Muslim Brotherhood murdered Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Any government that includes the Muslim Brotherhood will be hostile to human rights, repudiate Egypt’s treaty with Israel, and threaten us.

There is even a deeper concern. Although high percentages of Egypt’s people say they want democracy, 84% of them also say you should be killed if you leave Islam. Believing that, they will never be a democracy. The first human right is the right to life. Next must come the right to worship God as your conscience dictates. This right was eloquently championed for Americans by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. These great Founders knew that human rights are endowed by our Creator.

State Department careerists — the folks who tried to get President Reagan to scrap Tear Down This Wall — often fail to defend religious freedom. They forget that Jefferson and Madison were not only great advocates for religious liberty, they were also skilled diplomats. Madison knew that defending religious liberty could only add to “the lustre of our country.” Ronald Reagan knew that, too.

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