Op-Ed Column by State Senator Vincent Hughes

At a news conference on September 21, Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis, released the results of the 2011-12 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). The PSSA tests measure a student’s achievement of certain academic standards and determine if school programs are adequate enough to enable students to attain proficiency of these standards. Every student attending a public school and charter school in Pennsylvania is required to take the test.

The results should be disappointing for every Pennsylvania citizen. The announcement that student test scores declined on the PSSA exams marks a sharp turnaround for our state. These results illustrate an undeniable truth, adequate funding matters.

Governor Corbett’s education budgets have dramatically reduced support, cutting basic education aid by nearly $900 million during the past two years. These cuts have had an immediate negative impact on student performance.

Throughout the previous administration, significant new education investments were made in proven strategies to improve student performance and reduce learning gaps among poor and minority students. These investments produced dramatic results making Pennsylvania a national leader in education progress. By 2011, Pennsylvania was one of only 8 states in the nation where test scores went up in every subject and every grade level. Now, following staggering budget cuts, our scores have gone down.

At the press conference, Secretary Tomalis discussed his investigation into the issue of cheating on the PSSA tests. The investigation indicated that cheating was a result of test administrators making wholesale changes on the tests prior to turning the tests in for grading. This is unacceptable and we applaud Secretary Tomalis for his intense efforts to root out bad test results and bad test administrators.

But it should be noted, as Secretary Tomalis acknowledged, that continuing investigations into alleged improprieties involve only six of five hundred school districts and three charter schools. The Secretary admitted that scores declined even when removing all test score results from the statewide totals where cheating is alleged to have occurred.

In a survey of school districts released in May, the effects of the Corbett Administration’s budget cuts have been significant. Most districts have been forced to increase class sizes, tutoring programs have been reduced or eliminated, summer school programs have been curtailed and early learning initiatives have been scaled back. It would have been highly improbable for student learning and achievement to not be impacted.

In the end, we must acknowledge at least 2 things, money matters, and investments in proven education concepts that work, must be the foundation of our education policy. As adults and policy makers, let’s not cheat our children out of the high quality academic experience that they deserve and that the broader society must have.