A+ report gives Pittsburgh Public Schools mostly bad grades

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Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane knew she would get bad news in the annual report of A+ Schools, which Monday outlined declines in achievement, the graduation rate, number of students qualifying for Pittsburgh Promise scholarships and reduction in college readiness in her district.

But she said the district is already working to stem the tide.

In addition to the academic declines, there was more bad news: a widening of the racial achievement gap, which had narrowed in 2010-11, giving school officials hope that it could reduce the number of years it would take to close.

A+ Schools is an independent education advocacy group that works with and monitors the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

"I believe problems have solutions. We have to find out what the answers are," Ms. Lane said at the presentation of the eighth annual Report to the Community on Public School Progress in Pittsburgh. Much of the information in the report was already reflected in the district's 2012 PSSA scores, which showed some significant achievement drops and the district's failure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Ms. Lane said she believed teachers' uncertainty about their jobs, increased security during the PSSA exams and the lack of funding for interim assessments in the 2011-12 school year contributed to the decrease in achievement. This year the interim assessments, which help identify areas where students might be struggling, have been reinstituted.

Ms. Lane said that as a result of the increased security surrounding the test, which was implemented to reduce the possibility of cheating, teachers felt less inclined to offer encouragement and the testing envirnonment was less releaxed for students.

Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, said she had never delivered so much bad news in the eight years she's been giving the annual report.

News of a widening of the racial achievement gap was especially disappointing, since last year's scores had decreased it significantly. At that time, Ms. Harris said if the district continued at the pace it had set for the previous four years, it would have taken 40 years to close the gap in math and 34 years in reading. Based in 2011 test scores, the gap would close in 24 years if the pace was kept.

But the 2012 results show the gap widened this year, increasing by 1.3 percentage points to 31.9 percent in reading and increased 3.6 percentage points to 30.9 in math.

Ms. Harris said she didn't have a specific number of years calculated for closing the gap, but "we know when it widens it will take longer."

The district's graduation rate decreased from 70 percent to 68.5 percent and the number of seniors who earned a 2.5 or higher grade point average -- needed to qualify for Pittsburgh Promise scholarships -- dropped 1 percentage point to 58 percent of students. For black students, the number dropped 4 percentage points to 39 percent.

Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, said he had not seen the A+ report but he was not surprised by the news.

"The African-American population is the most vulnerable population in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, especially the males," Mr. Ghubril said.

To help more African-Americans qualify for Promise scholarships, the Promise has recruited volunteers who will work, starting in January, with students to reach the grade level needed for a Promise scholarship.

For academic achievement, A+ didn't look just at Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exam but looked at whether students at each grade level made a year's growth in achievement from the previous assessment.

In reading, a total of 91 percent of Pittsburgh public schools with seventh- and eighth-grade students made a year's worth or more growth in reading.

But 42 percent of schools with fourth-grade students made less than a year's growth. And 39.4 percent of schools with fifth-graders did while among schools with sixth-graders, 59.1 percent made less than a year's growth. Data for Pittsburgh schools with 11th-graders show that 44 percent made less than one year's growth in reading.

In math, achievement measurements were best in grades six and seven: 68 percent of schools with sixth-grade students made a year or more growth as did 73.9 percent with seventh-graders. But in schools with fifth-graders, 72 percent of students achieved less than one year's growth. Of schools with eighth-graders 65 percent showed less than a year's growth as did 67 percent of schools with first-graders. In schools with fourth-graders, 46 percent demonstrated less than a year's growth in math.

The report also included comparisons of Pittsburgh PSSA scores to the state averages in 2009-2012. In reading, in grades 6-8 and 11, Pittsburgh students gains far exceeded the state average. In reading in grades 3-5, though, reading scores dropped 1.2 percentage points, compared with a 1-point percentage drop statewide.

In math, again grades 6-8 showed gains higher than the state averages. But in grades 3-5, there was a 3.2 percentage point drop, compared with a 0.4 drop statewide.

In 11th grade math, Pittsburgh's performance remained static while the statewide average showed a 4.4 percentage point increase.

Enrollment decreased by 1,052 students to 24,918, with the sharpest declines at the elementary level. But Ms. Lane said she was encouraged by an 11 percent increase in kindergarten enrollment this fall.

Some bright spots included the fact that the number of students enrolled in one or more advanced placement courses increased 1 percentage point to 15.2 percent and that there were some schools with a racial achievement gap of 10 percent or less.

In reading there were seven Pittsburgh schools with a 10 percent or smaller gap. They are: Allegheny K-5; Dilworth pre-K-5; Fulton pre-K-5; Phillips K-5; Sterrett 6-8; CAPA 6-12; and Science & Technology 6-12. Two charter schools, City High Carter and the Urban League of Pittsburgh Charter School, showed a gap of 10 percent or less.

In math, schools with a 10 percent or smaller racial achievement gap are: Dilworth pre-K-5; Fulton pre-K-5; Phillips K-5; Whittier K-5; CAPA 6-12; Science & Technology 6-12; and City Charter High School.

Ms. Harris said the schools are becoming more diverse with higher percentages of Hispanic and Asian students. The student body is also poorer, with the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches 3 percentage points higher than in 2010-11 at 71.3 percent.

To view the full report go to www.aplussschools.org.

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


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