New state school tests find results similar to old tests

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With the release of the School Performance Profiles nearly two weeks ago, the state has a new accountability system, but it appears the same schools are as the top of the rankings and the same schools are at the bottom as under the old system.

But, under the new system, not all schools at the bottom of the list will be required to compose school improvement plans as they had in the past if they are not designated at Title I schools using federal Title I funding.

In Allegheny County, it's too soon to get a complete achievement picture because the majority of academic scores for high schools are among the 550 withheld by the state over questions about the accuracy of the data.

But based on scores released for more than 2,300 schools, including most public schools in the county, it appears the results fall along ZIP code lines, with schools in more affluent areas tending to have high academic profile scores and those in financially strapped areas earning lower scores.

That comes as no surprise to educational leaders who saw results under the previous assessment system, which measured Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind law, fall along similar lines. That system used the percentages of students who scored proficient or above on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams to measure academic progress.

"How schools ranked in the county on the School Performance Profiles and how schools ranked in the county on the PSSAs, I have a feeling they are going to be pretty much the same," said Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny County Intermediate Unit.

Officials of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, were also not surprised and are monitoring the academic scores since the 2014 scores will be used in teacher evaluations.

"No matter what measurement is used, it's a lot harder to improve student achievement after Gov. Corbett's nearly $1 billion in school funding cuts. And when school funding cuts are disproportionately deeper in poorer urban and rural schools than in suburban ones, raising student achievement becomes that much harder," said Wythe Keever, PSEA spokesman.

Mr. Keever was referring to funding cuts by the governor and Legislature in 2011 when they reduced funding to education rather than use state funds to cover areas previously funded by federal stimulus money.

While the achievement results aren't significantly different under the new system, requirements about which schools will have to produce written improvement plans are.

The new system continues to use PSSAs in reading and math in grades 3-8, science in grades 4 and 8 and writing in grades 5 and 8, and switches to end-of-course Keystone exams in algebra I, biology and literature.

The new evaluation system uses various factors, including test scores and academic growth, to determine an academic score for each public school based on a scale from 0 to 100 with seven extra credit points possible.

In Allegheny County, scores ranged from Duquesne with an academic score of 49.3 to Eisenhower Elementary School in Upper St. Clair, which had an academic score of 97.9.

Acting State Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq pointed to a score of 70 as starting "to be the mark of moving toward success." Schools that score below 70 get a downward arrow marked on their profiles.

In suburban Allegheny County, with a few exceptions, the schools in traditional public school districts that received academic scores below 70 are in or include financially troubled areas. They include the Clairton, Duquesne, McKeesport Area, Steel Valley, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills districts.

But unlike the previous system, which required all schools that did not achieve AYP to produce an improvement plan, under the new system only schools that use federal Title I funds will be reviewed to assess their need for a written school improvement plan.

Statewide about 1,800 or 61 percent of schools, including those in affluent districts, receive Title I funds based on the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. `As with the scores in general, the scores among the Title I schools in the county also fell along wealth lines.

Title I schools can receive one of four designations, with those whose academic scores are high labeled as "rewards high achievement" or "rewards high progress."

Those with scores at the bottom of the list will be designated either "focus" or "priority" schools and required to write school improvement plans. Also, in the future, any school that misses the same annual measurable objective for two years will be required to write a plan.

Priority schools will be assigned an educational liaison by the state education department to help develop the plan. The state has set aside $800,000 to cover the salaries and expenses of the eight-10 liaisons it will hire.

Duquesne is the only priority school among the county's suburban districts, though there are a handful in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Priority schools -- there are 92 across the state -- are those defined as among the lowest 5 percent of Title I schools based on aggregate math and reading proficiency on the PSSAs or Keystone algebra or literature or Title I schools receiving federal School Improvement Grants.

Paul Long, the state-assigned receiver for Duquesne, said he is awaiting word on the assignment of a liaison to the district.

The schools designated as "focus" schools are: McClure Intermediate School in Mc-Keesport Area; Barrett Elementary in Steel Valley; Sto-Rox Elementary and Middle schools; Kelly Elementary in Wilkinsburg; and Fairless Elementary in Woodland Hills.

The "rewards high achievement" schools are: Dorseyville Middle School in Fox Chapel Area; Central and Poff elementaries and Hampton Middle School in Hampton; J.W. Burkett Elementary in Montour; Allard and McCormick elementaries in Moon Area; Burchfield and Marzolf elementaries in Shaler Area; Lincoln Elementary in Mt. Lebanon; Hosack and Peebles Elementary in North Allegheny and South Fayette Elementary.

The "rewards high progress" schools are: Washington Elementary in Mt. Lebanon; Boyce Middle School in Upper St. Clair; Whitehall Elementary in Baldwin-Whitehall; and East Union Intermediate School in Deer Lakes.

School districts receive Title I funds based on the number of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and districts generally choose to use the funds at the schools with the highest percentage of those students and at the elementary or middle school level where educators feel they can make the most academic impact, said Deborah Allen assistant superintendent of the Mt. Lebanon School District.

Because districts tend to use the funds at the lower levels, no suburban high school in the county is designated as a Title I school, Ms. Hippert said. That means when all high school scores are released in December, no matter how low a score a building receives, it will not be required to come up with a Title I improvement plan.

However, Mrs. Hippert said she believes that superintendents will take their scores seriously and work to improve them.

Ms. Dumaresq said poor and poor-performing districts may be able to expect some help in the governor's 2014 budget.

"The governor will be presenting his budget and I think we will see some efforts toward targeted assistance," the secretary said.

Academic profiles of districts can be found at pa.schoolperformance.org.

education - neigh_west - neigh_north - neigh_east - neigh_south

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590. First Published October 17, 2013 12:59 AM


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