Twice as many Allegheny County school districts failing to meet AYP goal

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At least twice as many Allegheny County school districts failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress as defined under the federal No Child Left Behind law on the 2012 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams, compared with 2011 results.

Official results will be released by the state Department of Education by the end of the month. State Education Department officials declined to comment, pending the release of the official figures.

But based on reports released by school districts, at least 10 failed to AYP targets in 2012. The list includes three that missed it in 2011 -- Duquesne, McKeesport Area and Sto-Rox -- and seven that made their targets in 2011 -- Bethel Park, Clairton, Keystone Oaks, North Hills, Pittsburgh, Steel Valley and West Mifflin Area. One other district -- Woodland Hills -- that missed its targets in 2011 made them this time.

In addition, some of the county's highest-achieving districts, including Upper St. Clair, Fox Chapel and Mt. Lebanon, report that they made AYP as a district but missed the targets in subgroups of special education students. North Allegheny, another high-achieving district, made AYP as a district, but declined to provide subgroup information.

The results are coming just two years before the deadline under the No Child law for 100 percent of students to test proficient, a goal that local educators say is impossible to meet.

The local trends on this year's PSSA scores appear to be reflecting those reported by school districts in other parts of the state.

"Everything you are seeing, we are seeing as well," said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "The districts coming out ahead of time are the ones who didn't make it and they want to explain to the public that it was a much more difficult year."

Mr. Robinson said districts had to contend with increased targets on the exams and decreased financial resources, some the result of significant cuts in the 2011 state education budget that prompted districts to abandon tutoring programs, reduce staff and increase class sizes.

Targets for the 2012 tests required that 78 percent of students score proficient or advanced in math and 81 percent in reading, an increase from 2011 targets of 67 percent and 72 percent, though in some districts, school buildings, grade levels and subgroups of students can achieve AYP with lower scores if sufficient progress is made. Districts also must meet targets for test participation, attendance and graduation rates.

For the first time in 2012, the state used subgroups, such as black, special education and economically disadvantaged students, to determine graduation rates -- a change that caught some districts by surprise.

The one bright spot reported so far in Allegheny County is in the Woodland Hills School District, which did not make AYP in 2011 but hit its targets this year and is designated as "Making Progress."

A significant increase in scores at Woodland Hills High School was responsible for the improved AYP status, said Norman Catalano, curriculum coordinator. However, the district's five elementaries, Woodland Hills Academy and junior high did not make AYP.

In West Mifflin, superintendent Dan Castagna said he was surprised his district missed AYP because of its graduation rate. The district's overall graduation rate was 89.39, above the 85 percent state threshold, but he said he was told that because the black student subgroup had a graduation rate of 82.9, his district was placed in "warning" status.

While West Mifflin missed targets in other subgroups at various schools, Mr. Castagna said, the district would have made AYP were it not for the graduation rate.

The graduation cohort also caught North Hills and Bethel Park by surprise. Both high schools missed the target because of the number of special education students who stayed in school -- as permitted by law -- until age 21. The graduation cohort looks at students entering ninth grade who graduate in four years.

"It makes it look like we are not doing our job, but in fact it's quite the opposite. We are best servicing our students with special needs," said Jeff Taylor, assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and special programs at North Hills.

North Hills and Bethel Park also had trouble meeting 11th-grade math targets for all students.

Special education subgroups across the board were challenges for districts, particularly some of the more affluent ones.

Fox Chapel high and middle school missed AYP for its special education subgroups as did Mt. Lebanon High School, placing the schools in "warning" category.

"It isn't completely unexpected," said Alicia Gismondi, coordinator of federal programs and student achievement in Fox Chapel. "But it's not acceptable. Our mission is to provide the best possible education for our kids and improve outcomes as best we can."

Upper St. Clair superintendent Patrick O'Toole said special education subgroups in grades 3 and 5 missed their targets in his district.

In Chartiers Valley, the special education subgroup at the intermediate school did not meet AYP targets. At the middle school, targets were missed in the economically disadvantaged subgroup and at the high school all students did not hit targets in math or reading. Though the three schools individually did not make AYP, the district as a whole did.

In Keystone Oaks, the high school in 2011 made the most gains in tests scores of any high school in the state in math, with a 30 percentage point increase, but did not meet AYP targets this year. "This year, we maintained that level, but because the benchmarks changed we fell short," said district spokesman James Cromie.

In McKeesport, Steel Valley and Clairton, the severe state funding cuts in the 2011 budget led to a loss of tutoring funds, elimination of teaching positions and larger class sizes, all of which officials said contributed to difficulties in succeeding on the PSSAs.

In Clairton, based on the 2012 score, the high school joined the elementary and middle school in warning status.

In McKeesport, White Oak and George Washington elementary schools hit the AYP targets, but the rest of the district's schools did not. That's an improvement over 2011 when none of the district's schools made AYP.

In Steel Valley, the middle and high school and two elementary schools all failed to hit AYP targets. "I think that we have reached the point where many of the schools have in seeing the state thresholds move past their school's ability level for the programs that are implemented," said Ed Colebank, director of academics, information and technology.

Mr. Colebank said he believes the goal of all students reaching proficiency by 2014 must be revisited.

Mr. Taylor, of North Hills, agrees.

"I don't know where this is leading, but if they don't change No Child Left Behind, then you are going to see almost everyone next year being on that list of not making AYP," he said.

States can apply for a waiver from the NCLB, but Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ron Tomalis so far has chosen not to do so. Under the original legislation, both districts and the state must take measures to turn around schools in which all students fail to reach proficiency by 2014. That could include replacing school staff, bringing in private or charter management or having the state take over a district.

education - region

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590.


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