Last updated: February 16. 2013 7:49PM - 383 Views

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Same fluorescent lights, same color paint on the walls, same tiles on the hall floors, same pressure to pass standardized tests.

The return to school in the next two weeks may feel familiar to many students, but the similarities for teachers and administrators are strictly on the surface, a veneer of continuity hiding an upheaval of budget and curriculum.

The tectonic shifts include:

• Elimination of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests in 11th grade. An almost inevitable blemish on district academic achievements when compared to PSSA results in earlier grades, the math and reading tests for juniors are being replaced by …

• Implementation of the Keystone exams. This year, all 11th-grade students must take the tests in algebra I, biology and literature (with more subjects to come). Initially, Keystone test results will be used instead of PSSA 11th-grade tests to determine if a school meets federally mandated "Adequate Yearly Progress" toward the goal of all students scoring proficient or better in the tests. By 2017 students will need to pass Keystones to graduate.

• Field test of new state writing exams in grades three, four and five. These are an early, palpable consequence of the implementation of the "common core standards" on math and "English Language Arts" over the next several years, a set of new curriculum standards adopted by 45 states to ensure all students learn essential skills. The problem, according to local administrators, is districts must teach to the existing standards while introducing the new ones.

• Implementation of a new teacher evaluation system that dramatically reshapes the process, changing the ratings from a simple satisfactory/unsatisfactory to a four-tier rating that relies on student test results and dozens of teaching qualities judged through a standardized rubric.

• A new "Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit" program that called for the creation of a "low achieving schools" list – six Luzerne County schools made the list this year –and allows students who live near those schools to win scholarships used to attend other schools, including private institutions. The money comes through donations from businesses, which in turn get state tax credits.

• A moratorium on the state's "Plan Con" system for reimbursing some of the cost of school construction or renovation. The decision should not affect local districts – major projects were either completed or far enough along to remain eligible for reimbursement. But it could put a chilling effect on future plans to upgrade or expand facilities.

Pa. budget cuts still sting

All of this comes in the wake of steep state budget cuts that prompted local districts to shed scores of teachers and staff either by furlough or attrition, curtailing programs and increasing class sizes. Couple that with an expected spike in the amount districts must contribute to underfunded teacher pension funds, and many administrators talk of facing the myriad challenges in a fiscal straightjacket.

And it comes as districts struggle to keep up with – or at the very least, not get blindsided by – radical changes in technology.

Do you curb cellphone use or incorporate it into the curriculum? Is it time to replace those quaint classroom notebook computers with digital tablets? Can you compete with online cyber schools? Are buildings wired for distance learning? And how do you define and curtail inappropriate student behavior in social media like Twitter and Facebook?

Some of the changes have been coming for years. The idea of requiring high school students to pass a battery of subject-specific Keystone exams in order to graduate has been promised and delayed since at least 2009.

The three tests mandated this year were administered last year, though the results had no consequences. Now they will. A specific percentage of 11th-grade students must take the test, and a percentage must score proficient or better, with that percentage rising periodically until reaching 100 percent.

Current high school students do not have to pass the algebra, biology and literature Keystones in order to graduate, but the class of 2017 will. They are expected to take each test when the course is completed, with the opportunity to retest throughout their high school years.

The class of 2019 will have to pass those tests and a composition test, while the class of 2020 will have a test in civics and government added to the mandate. Districts have been revamping curriculum accordingly.

"We've already worked on this," Hazleton Area Superintendent Francis Antonelli said. Seventh- and eighth-grade math courses have been revamped, "raising the bar on expectations. They will be taking pre-algebra or algebra I."

Common Core standards

The Common Core standards have been in the works almost as long. An initiative launched and guided by the states, not the federal government, Pennsylvania was the 18th state to agree to adopt the standards in 2010. The idea is to make sure students throughout the country learn the same things, but how they learn it is left up to state and local officials.

Pennsylvania is changing state reading and writing tests to reflect adoption of the Common Core standards during the next three years, field testing new exams for different grades each year. New writing tests will be tested in grades three, four and five in February, with those tests becoming operational in 2014. Other exams will be field tested in other grades in the following years, with most of the new exams becoming operational by 2015.

In recent months Wilkes-Barre Area School District's outgoing Superintendent Jeff Namey has been warning the transition period will be "very difficult" because schools are essentially trying to teach to two standards, the current ones and the Common Core ones. The state Department of Education website contends the two are very similar, but Namey said they are not similar enough.

The new teacher evaluation system and the looming spike in pension payments by districts have also been in the works for years.

As use of the evaluation system ramps up, most district leaders are finding it takes more time to conduct the evaluations, without any real financial support from the state to compensate for that time. On the plus side, many seem to agree it fosters better cooperation between teacher and administrators, and charts a clearer path for teacher improvement.

A state agency sets how much districts must contribute into the pension fund, and unless something changes, districts face huge increased in coming years. Antonelli estimates the changes under the current proposal will increase pension payments in Hazleton Area from $2.8 million to $17.5 million in five years.

And there's a another potential siphon of district money: the state's new Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, which allows businesses to get a tax credit for money contributed to scholarship funds that can help some public schools students switch to private schools. The law was signed last month, and within weeks three scholarship organizations were set up and 10 private schools in Luzerne County had signed up to take advantage of the program.

Technological challenges

Amid all the other issues, districts are grappling with rapidly evolving technology. Local districts have started offering online courses to students who otherwise might be lured to publicly funded, online cyber charter schools.

Districts are also trying to find ways to use modern technology in brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Lake-Lehman took a giant leap into world of hand-held tablet computers this summer by buying 350 iPads. The district had experimented with the devices in two classrooms that went completely bookless and got positive results, Superintendent Jim McGovern said.

McGovern envisions a day when students use their personal digital devices – notebook computers, tablets and smartphones – in their daily school work. It's a future Namey, at Wilkes-Barre Area, is less confident will come soon.

"We tried using smartphones in the classroom," Namey said. The biggest problem was the small screens. Students spent too much time scrolling through and deciphering text and images on the little devices.

"They really need pad computers," Namey said. "And there's no way we can afford that."

And the challenges continue.

Mark Guydish can be reached at 829-7161.

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