Pennsylvania has placed far too much emphasis on state test results when providing each of its schools a performance profile score.

Nearly all of the scores come from a single test. And while tests matter for purposes of determining a student’s strengths and weaknesses, grade level or entire building, there are areas that, in my view, matter a great deal more. 

As well, often a school is set up to fail with tests as single measures because of the state’s woefully inadequate and inequitable funding schemes.

A case in point is the Greater Johnstown School District, where I recently served for three years as superintendent.

In 2007, the district was told by the state that it was $9 million underfunded in terms of having the capacity to bring all students to grade-level on state tests. 

Then in 2011 and 2012, the state took more than $900 per student ($3 million) from the district, forcing it to reduce its workforce by more than 25 teachers (more than 10 percent of total professional staff).

Of course, scores fell during that time period.

However, understanding the dismal context, I led an effort from day one to de-emphasize (or not emphasize at all) test results – knowing we were not given the opportunity to build capacity by the state. 

Instead, we would focus on several things we could do.

The results were amazing.

The charge:

• Engage every student in clubs, teams and groups beyond their academic work; 

• Focus on climate building for staff and students; 

• Create a college-going culture that builds on the good work of the district’s College Access Center.

Beginning with the latter strategy, promoting benefits of a college degree, there were many well-aligned initiatives.

We started with building a relationship with the United Way, the local hospital system and the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies – and built a family-engagement program highlighted by the nurse-family project for children ages birth to 2 of first-time moms who are in abject poverty (44 percent of Johns-town’s students are in true poverty; 85 percent are considered low-income).

The college-going culture had initiatives at every level.

At the high school, we took graduation rates to 84 percent, higher than the state and national averages (remember virtually all of our students are from very poor families) and 25 percent of all the students are presently enrolled in one or more college courses provided by Pennsylvania Highlands Community College.

Ten seniors this year will graduate with associate degrees and more than 40 students in eighth grade have signed on to the associate degree program.

The school’s technical and trades programs are also articulated with college credits.

One of our former students, one year removed from high school, is currently in a Marriot Hotels “Externship” via Indiana University of Pennsylvania, as he entered the university’s culinary program with junior status and 15 program credits. 

The college-going strategy is powerful, and students and families are saving tons of cash through the early start.

We care about our families.

The strategy of school and community climate-building started with installing the nurse-family program for babies and was continued by ensuring a researched-base social-emotional curriculum is in place at every level. 

The curriculum begins at school with Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (a partnership with Penn State), continues with the Botvin program at the middle school (partnering with United Way and Colorado State) and finishing with EQ training at the high school.

The context for school climate includes a fairly exact implementation of school-wide positive behavior support and training at all buildings, and a complete employee engagement strategy districtwide.

Nearly 100 percent (the goal) of Greater Johnstown students are now engaged in music lessons, clubs or community service groups throughout the district.

After-school programs are plentiful, and “juvenile crime” is almost nonexistent. 

Dozens of community service projects – including a community Christmas for 1,000 people annually, the Empty Bowls project, fundraisers for cancer and so much more – have come from our students’ involvement with the community.

These strategies represent what Johnstown schools and children can do while the district is being oppressed by the nation’s worst state funding system.

We are making gains. But, unfortunately, most of our gains are not given any credit in the state’s current and awful grading strategy. 

That may change with a new Pennsylvania secretary of education.

In the meantime, we will pay no attention to what we can’t build and focus lots of attention on more important things, such as going to college, improving climate and engaging our children in areas such as music and community-building – beyond and more important than the tests.

Gerald L. Zahorchak of Johnstown recently retired as superintendent of the Greater Johnstown School District. He is a former Pennsylvania secretary of education.

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