This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The state started to unveil its new system for rating schools on Friday, using a website containing school performance profiles that will ultimately provide a wealth of data for each school in the state and give a numerical performance rating to each.
However, it is ending the practice of comparing absolute proficiency rates on state tests from one year to the next, either for individual schools and districts or for the state as a whole.
The Philadelphia School District did not make that change, once again providing a comparison of this year’s PSSA results to last year’s, even though the news wasn’t good.
It reported that student proficiency rates on the spring 2013 PSSA exam declined for a second year in a row, after 10 straight years of growth. In reading, they went down from 44.8 percent to 42.3 percent, while the percentage of students proficient in math declined 4 points from 50.9 percent to 46.9 percent.
At the same time, the District said, most schools met the state’s standard for "student growth." That standard measures individual student progress from grade to grade.
At schools that do well, most students make at least a year’s worth of academic progress as measured by the PSSA.
It is possible for students to make solid academic progress, but still not reach the benchmark that would push them over proficiency. That is why overall proficiency rates can go down while schools receive good ratings using the growth model, said Melanie Harris, the District’s director of information systems.
"Obviously, if we are going to close the achievement gap, we should push for multiple years’ growth in a year’s time," Harris said. She was referring to the gap in test scores and other academic indicators between low-income and better-off students, and among different ethnic groups.
It is unclear from what the state has released what exactly doing well in the "growth model" indicator means — what percentage of a school’s students made significant gains, whether many students made more than a year of growth, or whether a school is improving overall.
Still, in a statement, Superintendent William Hite was quick to speak on the positive side of the news.
"Despite the many obstacles our schools faced, we are encouraged that students demonstrated growth in 2013," Hite said. "Nonetheless, these results are disappointing and do not represent the capabilities of our students."
He added, in fact, that they serve as a "call to action to focus our attention on effective instruction, high-quality school leadership and intensive supports for all students."
The District opened its doors this year with decimated school staffs, the result of a stripped-down budget passed to balance an enormous shortfall. After the layoffs of nearly 4,000 workers, only 1,600 of whom have been recalled, many schools are operating without counselors, nurses, or libraries, and with class sizes in some cases larger than were allowable under the recently expired teachers’ contract.
The District results show declines in proficiency rates from 2012 to 2013 in most schools, and across all grades and subgroups. For instance, of the 186 schools that administered the PSSA in grades 3 through 8 last year, 161 showed declines in the percentage of students proficient in math and 140 showed a decline in reading.
Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq said that the new school profiles provide more detail and user-friendly information than before.
"This new system brings together multiple academic indicators that are proven to provide a full overview of academic growth and achievement in our public schools," she said.
The website, however, is still missing data for more than 600 schools that do not yet have complete and accurate information. Most were high schools in which students took the new Keystone exams, which have now replaced the PSSA in the upper grades.
In order for the scores to be included in calculating the "student growth" score for those schools, students should have taken the test at the end of a course, and not a year or two later. However, the students’ self-reports on this were inconsistent. Keystones were administered in 11th grade in Algebra I, biology, and English.
Data for those schools will be released in December, Dumaresq said, "to accommodate the requests of 626 schools that reported errors in their Keystone Exams’ student growth measurements." Included in the 626 schools are Philadelphia’s high schools.
The previous measure of school performance was called "adequate yearly progress," or AYP, which was mandated under the No Child Left Behind law. The goal of NCLB was 100 percent proficiency in reading and math for all students in all schools by 2014.
As it became clear the goal would not be met, Pennsylvania and most other states were granted waivers and were free to use other methods to measure and evaluate schools. Dumaresq said the state’s new system "does not only rely on static achievement results" based on test scores, but many more measures including student growth, graduation rate, attendance and promotion rates, and other indicators.
Under the system, schools get scores ranging from 0 to 100. Dumaresq said that she felt a score of 70 or higher indicated that a school was on the right track.
The state Department of Education had not previously announced its intention to discontinue providing year-to-year comparisons of test-score results. In fact, a year ago, then-Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis said the 2012 PSSA results represented a new and valid baseline for schools in the state, attributing a statewide drop in test scores to anti-cheating measures that had been put in place. Statewide proficiency rates dropped one to two percentage points in reading and math in 2012, with much steeper declines in Philadelphia.
"We have hit the reset button on student performance," Tomalis said last September.