Evann Yetter

Amanda August/The Daily Item Evann Yetter, 8 of Middleburg, holds up one of his Lego toys on Thursday afternoon. Yetter carries the toy with him on most days for good luck.

MIDDLEBURG — A few weeks ago, Evann Yetter began having trouble sleeping. He was anxious all the time and afraid he wouldn’t be able to get ahead. 

Typical adult worries? Sounds like them but, no.

Evann is 8.

His anxiety was over the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, which started this week and continue into next for elementary school children.

Evann’s fear of “not getting ahead” was that he would be held back in third grade if he didn’t do well on the standardized tests, which are conducted statewide.

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A Middleburg Elementary School pupil, Evann thought doing poorly on the PSSAs would find him punished somehow, he said, adding his friends felt the same way. Their feelings reflect those of other Valley third-graders, whose parents told The Daily Item their children are upset and worried about the standardized test to the point of physical illness and anxiety. Evann’s mother, Kali Yetter, saw the changes in her son.

This is insane

When Evann asked if he could just stay home this week, “I thought, This is insane,” Yetter said.

Evann was worried despite being an excellent student. “He’s pretty smart,” she said. “I didn’t understand the stress. ... I would try talking to him and asking him questions about where he got these ideas.”

The PSSA is a standardized test given to students in grades 3 through 8 who are assessed in reading and mathematics. In grades 5 and 8, students also are assessed in writing.

According to the state Department of Education, the PSSA reading and math tests have been given annually in grades 5, 8 and 11 since 1998. The grade 3 PSSA reading and math assessments were first administered in 2004-05, and grades 4, 6 and 7 were first added in 2005-06.

Tests are done over two weeks. The reading and math tests take about two and a half to three hours each. The writing test takes approximately two and a half hours and another 20 minutes for the multiple choice portion. Tests are not timed, but suggested times are given for planning purposes.

Approximately 150,000 students per grade level in third through eighth grade and 11th grade take the math and reading PSSAs, totaling somewhere between 980,000 to 1,050,000 students.

PSSAs are a litmus test of sorts for the school and the school district. Each building gets a score on a “performance profile,” which includes PSSA results and teacher evaluations. More than half the students taking the test must score “advanced” or “proficient” for the school to be considered successful.

High stakes

Test scores also factor into those evaluations, making them high-stakes tests for teachers, said Selinsgrove Superintendent Chad Cohrs. Teacher evaluations also get a “value added score,” he said, which is based on the growth students show on the PSSAs.

Cohrs doesn’t doubt that students may sense the stress of teachers about the PSSAs. “There is a lot riding on it for the teachers,” he said.

School districts get both individual student results and a grade-level composite result that identifies areas that are doing well and which need improvement.

“We look for major trends and themes,” Cohrs said, “a big-picture look at strengths and weaknesses.”

Still, “We tell the teachers not to stress out the kids out based on this test. It’s another test we give, treat it as any other.

Thursday was “pretty taxing” in Lewisburg schools, Lewisburg Superintendent Mark DiRocco said from what he heard from teachers about the tests. There is a new set of reading tests, and “some of the kids were really tired.” These revamped tests were along standards of the Common Core, so some reading passages are much longer, and the children are asked to do more than before.

“Students want to do well. They prepare all year long. Our kids are conscientious and work really hard,” DiRocco said. “And when the teachers introduce these tests, they emphasize the importance of doing well.”

But DiRocco was dismayed to hear of children worrying themselves sick over PSSAs. “We do try to keep the anxiety as low as possible here” in Lewisburg,” he said. His advice to parents: Tell your kids “to do their best, that’s all we ask of you.”

However, DiRocco also leans toward parents who feel testing is overdone. “We can be much more strategic about it, to a point where we can assess kids on periodic basis instead of putting them through this every year.”

Try your best

In an assessment, “the goal for students is really to show the knowledge they have,” Cohrs said. Students should “try their best to show they understand a particular concept,” but not to feel their whole world hangs on the tests.

Kali Yetter wondered whether teachers were pressuring students, but Evann said no. “Ms. Crawford wouldn’t do that to me,” he said of Taylor Crawford, his teacher whom he clearly admires.

Kali Yetter had sent Crawford an email, she said, but hadn’t heard back.

Individual PSSA results will be mailed to parents around July, Cohrs said.

Now that he’s half way through the tests, Evann said he feels better. “When I started to take them, it’s not so bad,” he said. But to avoid needlessly anxiety, he does have advice for Valley students everywhere: “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s a plain, old week of time.”

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