The release of the 2012 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores last week provided some shocking results:
The number of districts making adequate yearly progress, known as AYP, statewide fell from 94 to 60.9 percent and the number of districts in Allegheny County that failed to make the mark increased from four in 2011 to 17 in 2012.
Making those results even more disturbing is the fact that they come just two years before the federal No Child Left Behind Law requires 100 percent of students to test proficient or advanced in math and reading or districts and schools face possible sanctions, including such drastic measures as the loss of federal funds or state takeover.
And, while scores are moving in the wrong direction, the road will get rockier next year as targets increase again and districts continue to struggle with limited resources and new state rules that make it harder for districts and schools with special education subgroups to hit their targets.
"My biggest question is: What do we do now?" asked Wilkinsburg superintendent Archie Perrin, whose district and all of its schools not only failed to make AYP but also failed to meet any of its academic or graduation targets.
"Wilkinsburg is one of those districts that won't make that [100 percent proficiency] goal," he said.
Mr. Perrin's sentiments were shared by numerous district leaders, and not just those who have struggled for years with the achievement targets.
For the first time since 2002 when the PSSAs were introduced, the 2012 results found multiple high-achieving districts missing targets in subgroups, most often special education. In addition, some districts that traditionally had made AYP missed the targets this year and were placed in "warning" status.
"I don't know where it's leading. A lot of it relies on the federal regulations and if they don't change No Child Left Behind, then you are going to see almost every district next year being on the list of not making AYP," said Jeff Taylor, North Hills assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and special programs.
The PSSAs were developed as Pennsylvania's measure of student achievement under the accountability mandate of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
In the early years of the test, the targets were considerably lower and remained in place for multiple years before increasing. But in the most recent years of the legislation, the targets are increasing rapidly and on an annual basis.
From 2010 to 2012, the proficiency target for reading has increased from 63 percent to 81 percent, with an increase to 91 percent set for 2013. Likewise in math, the proficiency target increased from 56 percent in 2010 to 78 percent in 2012 and 89 percent in 2013.
While some districts hit the targets straight out, others use alternative methods such as the growth model, confidence interval or safe harbor to make AYP. But even with those alternative methods, districts struggled this year.
For information about AYP and alternative methods, go to paayp.emetric.net.
No Child Left Behind has been up for reauthorization since 2007, but Congress appears at a stalemate over the content of new legislation. As a result, in September 2011, the Obama administration approved a plan that allows states to file for waivers from the law if they come up with an alternate plan for assessing student achievement.
So far, 44 states have either received or applied for a waiver, with the most recent round of requests from seven states, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education, coming last month, according to the U.S. Education Department.
Pennsylvania is among six states that have not requested a waiver, though earlier this year, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis sought, but was denied, a two-year freeze on assessment targets.
Mr. Tomalis has expressed reservations about the waiver process, but the option of filing for one "remains under consideration by the secretary," according to Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
In announcing the dismal PSSA results on Sept. 21, Mr. Tomalis blamed cheating on the exams for the drop in scores. He said past scores were inflated due to cheating and fell because of increased test security. He said he plans to file complaints against more than 100 "public education officials" for cheating.
Educators and teacher union officials blasted Mr. Tomalis' claim, pointing out that 100 educators are a drop in the bucket from the pool of about 148,500 education professionals statewide.
School and union officials say the rapidly increasing targets coupled with the nearly $1 billion funding cut to education that came in 2011 as a result of the loss of stimulus funding are the reasons that significantly more districts and schools missed the targets on the 2012 test.
They predict the 2013 results will be even worse.
Educators also point to changes instituted by the state Department of Education as barriers to making AYP. This year, for the first time, subgroups were used for graduation targets and a handful of local districts missed making AYP because not enough special education students graduated in four years.
It's a measure districts find outrageous given the fact that special education students can, by law, remain in public school until age 21.
Among the districts that failed to make AYP because of this change were North Hills, Penn Hills, Shaler Area, North Hills and Bethel Park. Baldwin-Whitehall missed the graduation target in its economically disadvantaged subgroup, preventing the district from making AYP.
"We all knew this day would come," said Arleen Wheat, assistant superintendent of special education and curriculum in the North Allegheny School District.
There, although 92.8 percent of high school students overall tested proficient or advanced in reading and 83.6 percent in math, the high school did not make AYP because its special education subgroup did not hit its targets in math. Similar scenarios existed at Marshal Middle School and McKnight Elementary. The district as a whole made AYP.
In other high-achieving districts -- such as Upper St. Clair, Fox Chapel Area and Pine-Richland -- special education subgroups missed AYP targets.
In addition, Moon Area missed AYP at Bon Meade Elementary School because its special education subgroup missed targets in math and reading and at Moon Area Middle School because the same subgroup missed the target in math.
At Montour, special education students in grades 3-5 missed the target in math.
"If they can't make it, how can we?" questioned Ginny Hunt, assistant superintendent in the Clairton School District, which did not make AYP as a district or in any of its schools.
For 2013, the state is taking away the PSSA-M test, a modified version of the exam that was permitted for some special education students. Educators predict that will adversely affect scores.
While some districts struggle with the regulation changes, others have struggled all along in getting their student groups to make AYP. Now that targets are increasing rapidly, the struggle gets even more difficult. In addition to not moving far enough ahead, some districts saw large drops in scores this year.
McKeesport was one of those districts. At McClure Intermediate School, which houses students in grades 4-6, scores dropped in all categories -- dramatically in some -- and the school missed all of its academic targets. For example, scores in the multiracial/ethnic subgroup dropped 20.9 percentage points for those scoring proficient or advanced in reading and by 38.6 percentage points in math.
In addition, the high school missed the mark on graduation rates in five categories: students overall and the subgroups of white, African-American, special education and economically disadvantaged students.
The graduation rate for students overall dropped from 62.7 percent in 2011 to 55.3 in 2012, which was the second-lowest in the county behind Wilkinsburg. The high school also missed graduation targets for all of its subgroups: including white, African-American, special education and economically disadvantaged.
But there were some improvements in McKeesport over last year, when none of the schools hit AYP targets. For 2012, George Washington and White Oak elementaries made AYP, and, though the high school did not, there were significant improvements in the reading scores, with increases of 17.1 percentage points for students who scored proficient or advanced among students overall and 19.8 percentage points for African-American students.
In Woodland Hills, district officials are celebrating the fact that improvement at the high school meant it met all of its targets, resulting in the district meeting AYP targets and placing it in the "Making Progress" category after not making AYP last year. The celebration is tempered, however, by the fact that the district's other schools, including the Woodland Hills Academy, did not make AYP.
Among the Propel charter schools, all schools with the exception of Propel North made AYP.
However, there were some dramatic drops in scores at Propel Homestead and Propel McKeesport. Propel Homestead saw a 27.6 percentage-point drop in reading scores in grades 3-5 and a 10.2 percentage-point drop in math. At Propel McKeesport, there was a 22.3 percentage-point drop in reading scores and 5.6 percentage-point drop in math scores.
In 2010, Propel McKeesport was chosen as the top charter school participating in a national competition sponsored by the Effective Practice Incentive Community initiative. The award, which brought $100,000 in cash, was based on 2009 PSSA scores, in which 100 percent of students in grades 5 and 6 scored proficient or advanced in math.
In the Duquesne City School District, where various administrations have tried various improvement programs over the years, scores remain dreadfully low. The district missed all of its academic targets in grades 3-8 with just 18.4 percent of students overall scoring proficient or above in reading and 33 percent in math in grades 3-5. In grades 6-8, those number are 20.9 percent and 24.6 percent.
High school students from Duquesne attend either East Allegheny or West Mifflin Area high schools. They hit the AYP target in reading, with 32.6 percent scoring proficient or above, because enough students showed progress. But they did not hit the target in math, with 20 percent scoring proficient or advanced.
"I've tried a lot of things in the last couple of years, and I'm sure people before us have tried, but nothing seems to have a long-term effect here," said acting superintendent Paul Rach.
Mr. Rach said he has done an analysis of Duquesne's scores for the past dozen years and "there's no pattern. They go down, up and sideways. There is no rhyme or reason. I wish I could find some; then I could fix the problem."
Local superintendents said while they realize their districts likely will not meet the 2014 proficiency target of 100 percent, they will continue to try to move student achievement along as much as possible.
"In the midst of chaos, you do what's best for your system and your kids," said Penn Hills superintendent Thomas Washington.
Mary Niederberger: email@example.com; 412-263-1590.