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Philly schools: Are you in or are you out?

This year, as it’s been the case since 1999, the Philadelphia School District administered the PSSAs and the Keystone Exams. The PSSA exam is given to public school students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11. The Keystone exams are a graduation requirement and considered to be an end-of-course assessment.

Parents have a decision to make.

The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) is a type of measuring tool to see if students are proficient in the education standards set by both state and federal governments.

The tests are deemed, at least by the school district, to be extremely important. The parents are now starting to question that importance. In a growing nation-wide trend there were a couple of parents who decided to opt out of the PSSA tests; they basically refused to let their kids take them. In the past, parents could opt out for religious reasons and although the numbers weren’t big educators are expecting the numbers to grow.

So why would a parent do something like that?

Perhaps it’s because that the tests aren’t so much for the students, but for the teachers and the schools; that it is a measuring tool to see if people are doing their jobs. Of course based on information the public already had many feel that they are not doing their jobs or at least not the way they should.

There are many people who believe that this is really the only reason and many teachers and principals are quick to point out that having students do well on the tests is everything to the school district so much so that the teachers are basically teaching the test. These tests are not used to determine whether a child can be promoted to the next grade and colleges don’t care about them.

The pressure that the school district puts the schools under can be explained by a very simple acronym: AYP (Advanced Yearly Progress). If the students score well the school makes AYP. If they don’t – watch out. Continuing to not make AYP may result in forced teacher transfers (which they hate), removal of principals and, ultimately, either closing the school or turning it into a Renaissance or Charter school.

There are other reasons why these tests, not only in Pennsylvania but other states as well, are important and it has nothing to do with education.

It’s about money, but not money for the schools or for enhancing education. It’s about people making money and the status quo, but you can just call it The Good Ol’ Boy Syndrome.

The Good Ol’ Boy Syndrome is when people (but mostly men) show loyalty or favoritism to others with whom they share a common bond with and in this case it’s the political parties. It’s basically an updated and corrupt version of the status quo.

Confused? You won’t be in a minute.

In 2009 the Pennsylvania Department of Education signed a $200 million dollar (taxpayer funded) contract with the Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) to prepare and score the tests. This year alone taxpayers shelled out $59.5 million to the company.

Although there are some Republicans who accuse the company of having their hands in the pocket of the Democrats this isn’t entirely true. The DRC has their hands in the pockets of both parties especially now when the Republicans have been in control of Pennsylvania for several years.

The DRC is the invention of Russ Hagen who founded the company in 1978 after working as a computer programmer for several years. Through some of his civic duties he has strong and unbreakable ties to the Republican Party.

In 2006 Hagen hired former Republican state legislator Susan Engeleiter to be his CEO after the No Child Left Behind law helped make the DRC a $1.5 billion company. She showed her gratitude by landing a $110 million contract with the state of Ohio which is just peanuts to how much she got from Pennsylvania. Engeleiter even admits to aggressively going after clients and preying on their vulnerabilities (NCLB) in order to turn a buck.

The reason why Republicans thought that the DRC was in the Democrats pocket might have something to do with the $6,000 Engeleiter donated to Ed Rendell’s campaign for governor and Hagen donating $16,000 in 2007. Out of that money $10,000 was donated after Rendell had won a second term as governor and still had over $1 million in the reelection campaign fund.

The GOP accused the Rendell administration of giving the contract to the DRC, but in retrospect the DRC had held contracts in Pennsylvania since 1992 when Republican Bob Casey was governor (1987-1995). Over the years the DRC has given money to several state legislators most of them Republicans.

When Republican Governor Tom Ridge was in office (1995-2001) the DRC hired lobbying firm Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney. The company’s CEO, John A. Barbour, is a close friend to current Governor Tom Corbett and served on the governor’s Advisory Council on Privatization and Innovation as well as the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney (who don’t come cheap), through their lobbying efforts and contacts which is done by Scott Baker once a top aide to Tom Ridge and who is married to Leslie Gromis Baker Corbett’s Chief of Staff, let the DRC know about any upcoming or pending education legislation or politics that are going on in Washington. It is through this information that the DRC has been able to build their relationships within state governments as well as the Department of Education.

So what do the taxpayers get for their money? Apparently not too much. The schools get the booklets and forms, but that’s about it.

The tests aren’t graded by a computer. This is where the DRC provides a personal touch. It’s graded by seasonal employees who make $11 -13 per hour. These aren’t necessarily former teachers. To get the job all you have to do is to say you have a four year degree (proof not required), submit a short writing sample (because after all only a college graduate can do that), solve two math problems and attend a training session.

Employees say working for this company is akin to working in a slave labor type of setting; that they are expected to grade the test as fast as they can and not to ask any questions. In fact everyone that works for the DRC that are responsible for these tests are temporary employees which works out well for the company. There’s no one to blame.

What the DRC hires are inexperienced people fresh out of college or those with at least some work history. What this amounts to is that each test, depending on who is grading it, will be scored differently. It also makes way for a lot of human error; that whether a student passes or fails is totally dependent on that employee who is working under extremely adverse conditions.

In a just world the Department of Education should cram the DRC under a microscope, but that won’t happen as long as The Good Ol’ Boy Syndrome is in play. The system, like everything else politicians touch, is slime covered and until the Department of Education can provide taxpayers with information and scientifically prove how these tests are helping students achieve academically then parents should opt out. In fact so should the taxpayers, but they aren’t as lucky as a student who has their parents to depend on.

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