Pennsylvania school districts show steep drop in test scores

39.1 percent fail to make progress; cheating inflated past years' results, official claims

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Public schools and school districts across the state got hit with a one-two punch when statewide test scores were released Friday.

Scores have dropped, resulting in dramatically fewer schools and districts making adequate yearly progress, known as AYP.

On top of that, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said the reason is past scores were inflated due to cheating and fell because of increased test security.

While 94 percent of school districts in 2011 made AYP, only 60.9 percent did so this year. In 2011, 75 percent of schools made AYP, but this time it was 50.3 percent.

"It's very clear from the data we've seen it's been elevated -- artificially elevated -- for the last couple of years," Mr. Tomalis said.

Charts: Student scores decline & District missing AYP
(Click image for larger version)

The general cheating charge brought strong reaction from superintendents and others.

"To say this drop in scores is due to cheating is absurd," said West Mifflin Area Superintendent Daniel Castagna. "This district is working with 80 fewer full-time employees than we had three years ago. That creates larger class sizes, and we have taken away tutoring and support and remedial course offerings."

Sto-Rox Superintendent Michael Panza said, "Funding cuts absolutely had a negative effect on education in the commonwealth. For anybody to say anything else, I just don't believe it."

North Hills Superintendent Patrick Mannarino said his district is clean. "State officials should be ashamed of their attempts to paint all 500 public school districts throughout Pennsylvania with the same brush."

Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, said he thinks it's appropriate for the department to crack down on cheating but noted the department's own statements show "there is no evidence that cheating is pervasive."

Instead, he said the loss of resources is widespread, particularly in poor school districts.

"There's been a lot more of the loss of resources in districts than there has been evidence of cheating," he said.

A statement from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said Mr. Tomalis' insistence that cheating was the reason for the poor PSSA results dismisses "critical factors directly related to test results, including the large jump in required performance targets, changes in the methods of measuring progress and cuts in state funding."

But Mr. Tomalis, who disagrees on whether funding provided by the state has been cut, said the department's technical advisory committee studied the situation, looking at three possible reasons for the score drop: funding, changes in test content and tighter test security.

His presentation stated that the committee "found that the only scientific cause for the drop in scores from 2011 to 2012 was the department's investigation of past testing improprieties, which has led to heightened test security measures."

The department had investigated 48 local education agencies -- school districts and charter schools -- where it found some test irregularities in 2009, 2010 and 2011, largely excessive erasure patterns. Thirty were cleared. Some are being monitored or have closed cases, and nine are still under investigation, including Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Mr. Tomalis noted that the rate at which students left test questions blank -- the omit rate -- increased in every grade and subject except 11th-grade reading from 2011 to 2012.

He attributed that to the department's emphasis on test security "even in schools where no misconduct was investigated."

He said if the performance of the 110 schools that were the subject of investigation were removed, the 2012 statewide math and reading scores would be closer to 2011 scores.

Mr. Tomalis said he expects complaints will be filed against well over 100 public officials in schools pertaining to the cheating issue. At least some of those may be taken before the Professional Standards and Practices Commission, which can take action against an educator's professional certificate.

The secretary called the 2012 results the "new benchmark of student achievement in Pennsylvania" because he believes tighter security measures implemented in 2012 resulted in more accurate results on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

This new benchmark shows the percentage of students statewide scoring proficient or advanced declined from 77.1 percent in 2011 to 75.7 percent in 2012 in math. In reading, the decline was from 73.5 percent to 71.9 percent.

In math, which is given in grades 3-8 and 11, there was a drop in every grade level -- some slight -- except seventh grade. There were also drops in every subgroup except Native Americans.

In reading tests, which are given in grades 3-8 and 11, there was a drop in every grade level except seventh. There also were drops in every subgroup.

Reading and math results count -- along with attendance and graduation rates -- for determining AYP under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In 2012, absolute AYP targets were higher. The targets for percentage proficient or advanced in reading was increased from 72 percent to 81 percent and in math from 67 percent to 78 percent.

Schools and school districts also can make AYP by showing improvement, growth or other statistical measures.

Most of those who made AYP needed the alternate measures. Only 15.6 percent of school districts -- and 19.5 percent of schools, including charter schools -- made AYP by the performance targets themselves.

Of charter schools, only 59.1 percent made AYP, but the figure was much smaller among cyber charter schools, where three of 13 made AYP.

In Allegheny County, four districts missed AYP in 2011, but 17 missed it in 2012: Baldwin-Whitehall, Bethel Park, Brentwood, Clairton, Duquesne, Gateway, Keystone Oaks, McKeesport Area, North Hills, Northgate, Penn Hills, Pittsburgh, Shaler Area, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox, West Mifflin Area and Wilkinsburg.

One Allegheny County district -- Woodland Hills -- which missed AYP in 2011 met its targets this time, putting it in the making progress category. It needs to meet them a second consecutive time to make AYP.

Among the 16 bricks-and-mortar charter schools in Allegheny County, six missed making AYP: Academy; Propel - Northside; Northside Urban Pathways (now known as Urban Pathways 6-12); Urban Pathways K-5 College; Urban League of Pittsburgh; and Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania.

Cornell and South Allegheny made AYP as a district but missed AYP in all of their schools.

Others that made AYP as a district but missed certain schools include Fox Chapel Area, which missed at Dorseyville Middle School and its high school; Mt. Lebanon, which missed at its high school; and North Allegheny, which missed at Marshall Middle, McKnight Elementary and its senior high school. All of these involved missing targets for special education subgroups.

Some districts that made AYP also made AYP in all of their schools, including Avonworth, Hampton, Montour, Pine-Richland, Quaker Valley, South Fayette, South Park and Upper St. Clair.

Some schools or districts experienced double-digit drops in math or reading scores, including Brentwood, where Superintendent Ronald Dufalla was "startled" that reading scores dropped 14.7 percentage points and math 12.4 percentage points among students overall.

He had no explanation but was offended at the implication cheating could be responsible.

education

Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955. Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. Karen Langley contributed.


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