If school officials think making adequate yearly progress was difficult this year, wait until they give state tests this school year.
At least some of the changes in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment will make it more difficult to achieve AYP, which is based on student achievement on math and reading tests, test participation, attendance and graduation rates.
The changes include eliminating a version of the test for certain special education students, replacing the 11th-grade PSSA exams with the new end-of-course Keystone Exams and offering an online version of the PSSA.
The tests will come on the heels of disappointing results for many school districts on the 2012 PSSA.
While 94 percent of school districts in 2011 made AYP, only 60.9 percent did so this year. In 2011, about three-fourths of schools made AYP, but this time it was 50.3 percent.
In math, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced fell from 77.1 percent in 2011 to 75.7 percent in 2012. In reading, the drop was from 73.5 percent to 71.9 percent.
State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis, who is in the midst of a cheating investigation, attributed the drop to heightened test security while some superintendents attributed it to decreased funding and programs as well as changing targets.
In North Allegheny, where the district made AYP but three schools did not because of special education subgroups, Arleen Wheat, assistant superintendent of special education and student services, said the increasing targets are making it difficult for all districts.
She said North Allegheny's special education test scores were higher than the state average but still missed the targets.
"If North Allegheny is put on a list with those scores, just imagine how many schools in the future will be put on a list or given a warning status," Ms. Wheat said. "We are very concerned about what's going to occur as this moves forward."
Ebony Pugh, spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said, "It's going to be increasingly harder for schools and districts to make the targets."
The state is eliminating the PSSA-M, a modified version of the PSSA for special education students. It covers the same content as the regular test but uses simpler language and offers fewer answer choices.
The test -- first offered in math in 2009-10 and in reading in 2010-11 -- has helped some schools and school districts to make AYP, particularly those with subgroups of at least 40 special education students. To make AYP, schools and school districts must meet all AYP targets in all subgroups of at least 40 students.
In 2011-12, 8 percent of Pittsburgh Public Schools students took the PSSA-M.
State officials say the PSSA-M is being eliminated because of U.S. Department of Education mandates.
"The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) is no longer permitting states to use alternative assessments based upon modified achievement standards; therefore, the PSSA-M has been eliminated as an assessment option in Pennsylvania," said John J. Tommasini, director of the state bureau of special education, and John Weiss, director of the bureau of assessment and accountability, in a memo to school officials May 2.
Daren Briscoe, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said it has not issued letters to Pennsylvania or any other states saying they cannot use a modified assessment.
In 2010, the federal department notified all state directors of assessment that they needed to submit the modified assessments for peer review by March 1, 2010.
According to Mr. Briscoe, Pennsylvania did so, but the department soon afterward told Pennsylvania the materials were incomplete.
On March 15 of this year, federal officials received more information from Pennsylvania, which included a statement that the PSSA-M wouldn't be used after 2011-12. After clarifying, the federal officials said April 3 that they would not peer review the additional evidence, because the test wouldn't be used, Mr. Briscoe said.
Asked whether federal officials told the state to discontinue the PSSA-M, Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said in an email, "Department staff attended a conference held by the U.S. Department of Education in which it was discussed that the PSSA-M would not be recognized for AYP purposes."
The most severely disabled will continue to get a different modified test, which in Pennsylvania is the PASA, which stands for Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment.
Changes made in 2011-12 on how graduation rates are calculated will continue to present challenges for schools and districts this school year, including those with special education students who are being educated to age 21.
Under the system used through 2011, the graduation rate was calculated using the "leaver" rate -- how many students left their senior year.
In 2011-12, the state began using the four-year "cohort" rate, which measures how many students who started in ninth grade finished in four years. For schools with special education students who are educated through age 21, the new formula presents a problem. Those students count as nongraduates in the four-year graduation rate, thus lowering their graduation rates.
The federal government offered an option of an extended five-year or six-year rate, but Pennsylvania chose the four-year rate.
In addition, the 2012 results were the first that required the graduation rate to be disaggregated by the same subgroups as already were required for test scores, including special education, economically disadvantaged and race.
For AYP purposes, graduation rates lag a year behind, so there is nothing school districts can do to improve 2013 numbers that are based on 2012 graduation rates.
Another big change is that the 11th-grade PSSA is being eliminated in 2012-13, replaced by the Keystone Exams, which are end-of-course exams, beginning with Algebra 1, biology and literature.
The first testing window is in December, followed by others in January, May and July.
In pilot testing of the first three tests in 2010-11, students did not do well. No more than 50 percent on average passed each test.
On top of all of that, the targets for making AYP are increasing although schools and districts still will be able to make AYP based on improvement, growth and statistical measures that fall short of the absolute targets.
In spring 2013, the target will be 91 proficient or advanced in reading and 89 percent proficient or advanced in math. The following spring, it will be 100 percent in each. In spring 2012, it was 81 percent in reading and 78 percent in math.
The way the test is given may change as well. School districts will have a choice of giving the PSSA online or on paper.
The May 2012 memo from Mr. Tommasini and Mr. Weiss states that rather than the PSSA-M the federal government is moving toward the " 'next generation of assessments' " that will be delivered online.
As a result of the Common Core, which has changed content standards in Pennsylvania and many other states, two consortia are developing new online tests. They will be field-tested in 2013-14 and operational in 2014-15, Mr. Briscoe said.
The online format under development will modify questions for eligible students while still testing the same content in the same grade level, he said. The state Department of Education did not provide an answer as to whether the state's online test will do so.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: email@example.com or 412-263-1955. Staff writer Mary Niederberger contributed.