Reverse course: A districtwide effort must address student scores

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For a decade, the performance of Pittsburgh Public Schools students on state standardized tests has been creeping up, making incremental steps in the right direction. Until now.

Results from tests administered in the spring show an alarming reversal overall and shocking drops in some individual schools.

Districtwide, the percentage of students who were proficient or better in reading fell from 60.8 percent in 2011 to 58.8 percent this year; figures for math also were down, from 66.2 percent to 62.4 percent. That didn't undo all of the gains, but it put the district back, close to where it was two years ago.

The number of schools that met targets under the federal No Child Left Behind standard was just seven out of 57; last year, when the district had 60 schools, 32 of them met the goal.

A detailed analysis by Post-Gazette education editor Eleanor Chute showed far worse results at some individual buildings. Eleven schools experienced double-digit drops in reading performance and 14 did the same in math. Of those, five schools saw double-digit drops in both subjects -- four elementary schools and one high school, Perry.

At Allderdice, the Squirrel Hill school that is often considered the gem of the district, just 53.5 percent of 11th-graders met the standard in both math and reading; last year, the comparable figures were 67.3 percent in math and 77 percent in reading. Perry registered the worst drop of all, a fall-off of 30 percentage points: on the 11th-grade reading exam, just 22.4 percent of students were proficient or better, compared with 52.4 percent a year ago.

Superintendent Linda Lane and district officials were taken aback by the results and admit that they don't know what scuttled the Pittsburgh Public Schools' slow but steady progress. Nor do they have easy remedies prepared for the future.

This has been a difficult period for school districts, and Pittsburgh is no exception. It closed several buildings to cut operating costs and address declining enrollment. This summer, the district laid off 280 employees.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools found a way to remain financially solvent in difficult times. Now administrators, teachers, parents and students must work together to figure out how to tackle the district's primary goal of improving academic achievement.

Correction/Clarification: (Published September 14, 2012) Figures in an editorial Wednesday on the Pittsburgh Public Schools' state achievement tests were wrong because the district provided incorrect data. Here are the corrected numbers. Eleven schools showed double-digit drops in reading performance. Five schools saw double-digit drops in both reading and math, including four elementary schools and Perry High School. The drop in reading at Perry was 19.6 points and at Allderdice 9.3 points.


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