When Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane learned of the district's disappointing results on state tests, her first reaction was: Could these numbers be right?
The answer is yes.
The preliminary results show student performance dropped for the first time in five years, putting the district close to where it was two years ago.
Based on preliminary results, district officials expect the state will find the district failed to make adequate yearly progress -- known as AYP -- under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, both because of lagging test scores and graduation rates.
The four-year graduation rate was basically stagnant at 68.4 percent.
The state Department of Education has not yet released statewide test or AYP results.
The district met AYP targets last year, the second time in three years. The results show that 62.4 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in math this year, compared to 66.2 percent the previous year. In reading, this year's scores were 58.8 percent proficient, compared to 60.8 percent a year earlier.
The scores are based on the spring 2012 administration of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests in grades 3-8 and grade 11.
Ms. Lane called the results "unexpected," adding, "While we are certainly disappointed and certainly going to do our due diligence around understanding this information and learning from it, it does not deter us in our goal."
She said that despite the decline, the overall trend in the past five years still is up.
No one knows why scores dipped, but Ms. Lane offered several possible reasons:
• Dealing with budget reductions diverted the academic team's time and attention.
• Uncertainty among staff members as the district prepared to close schools, lay off an unprecedented number of teachers and move teachers from one building to another this fall.
• Discontinuing 4Sight assessments after the state cut the Educational Assistance Program funds used to pay for them. Teachers used the tests throughout the year to see if students were on track to do well on the PSSA.
• Uncomfortable testing conditions for the PSSA brought about by new, "aggressive" state-required test security measures that left teachers and principals "afraid to do even the things they could do, especially with younger children."
The school year ahead doesn't promise to be an easy one because class sizes will be larger and many teachers will be in buildings new to them.
"It does get tougher, but that doesn't mean we still don't hold ourselves accountable," Ms. Lane said.
"We've got children who will be in our schools in less than three weeks. We have 136 days between the day they start and the administration of the PSSA. We have to make use of every single one of them."
Teacher union president Nina Esposito-Visgitis expressed disappointment and said, "This one-year deviation from a long upward trend in test scores is a reminder that we can never allow distractions from our efforts to build the best possible education opportunities for the students in our schools."
The district and the union will continue to address the budget challenges, she said, and they will not "retreat from the mission of making the Pittsburgh Promise [scholarship program] accessible to all of our students."
School board president Sherry Hazuda said, "It's very, very frustrating. Everybody has worked so hard to help our kids improve."
She thinks, however, the district is "on the right track. I think what we're doing are the right things."
Carey Harris, executive director of advocacy group A+ Schools, said the scores are disappointing, but noted they are just one year.
"It's kind of like going on a diet and you're losing and losing and losing and losing and one week you gain," she said. "You're a little discouraged, but you have to keep at it."
She also said, "I think we've had enough progress to feel confident we're largely going in the right direction."
Recently, Ms. Lane released a working document of an equity plan aimed at reducing the racial achievement gap.
The latest scores show a decline for African-American students as well, from 55.3 percent proficient or higher in math last year to 51 percent this year and from 49.1 percent in reading last year to 47 percent this year.
Echoing the advice of consultant and urban sociologist Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, who worked on the equity plan, Ms. Lane said, "We believe we're doing the right things. We just need to do them better, with more diligence, coherence and focus."
To make AYP, a district or school must hit all targets for at least two consecutive years. Those who hit the AYP targets for one year are considered to be making progress.
Of the 57 city schools listed, only seven hit all AYP targets, including Pittsburgh Arlington PreK-8, which is in the making progress category.
Those who made AYP are Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5 on the North Side and Dilworth PreK-5 in East Liberty; Greenfield K-8; and three 6-12 magnet schools, Obama, which has an international studies program and was in Shadyside; CAPA, which has a creative and performing arts program Downtown; and Science & Technology Academy, known as Sci-Tech, in Oakland.
School-by-school results are expected to be released next month.
Because of the results and their Title 1 participation, 15 schools will be eligible for school choice, which means their students can go to another district school which did better on the AYP standard.
The district next week will send parents letters telling them which schools they can choose, but the list is short because so few schools made AYP.
The only high school on the list to which students may transfer under the choice provision is Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood. Westinghouse, where middle grade levels were added and staffing was changed last fall, is considered a new school. Thus, it was only in the warning category for its first year of testing.
Westinghouse, which Ms. Lane has acknowledged had a difficult first year, had 7.5 percent of its students proficient in math and 30.2 percent in reading, an increase of 0.6 percentage points and 3.9 percentage points, respectively, in grade 11.
Students in some schools that didn't meet the targets and who qualify for free or reduced price lunch also will be eligible for free tutoring.
School board member Jean Fink, who has three grandchildren in the school system, said she is disappointed in the results, but "I'm very happy with the education my grandkids are getting.
"I wouldn't let one year's dip in scores deter me from sending my kids there."
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.