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State unveils new rating system for schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania is moving to a new school performance rating system that replaces the much-criticized AYP, or Adequate Yearly Progress, with a more complex evaluation that includes student proficiency in science and writing as well as reading and math.

Barring unforeseen problems, test scores and other academic indicators for each school in the state — charters and cyber charters included — will be released Sept. 30 on a new and highly interactive website.

In a Wednesday morning briefing, acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq said that AYP designations, based almost entirely on reading and math proficiency rates, will be replaced by School Performance Profiles that include many other indicators, including graduation and attendance. Once baselines are established, the profiles will give considerable weight to whether a school is making overall progress and whether it is closing the academic achievement gap among different demographic groups.

Under the new system, schools will get a rating from 1 to 100. Schools with enough low-income students to be designated Title I and receive federal funds — which include most of those in Philadelphia — will still be labeled depending on their academic achievement scores.

The lowest 5 percent, called "focus" schools, will be targeted for extra help, Dumaresq said. "We’ll be driving in from the state with folks, academic recovery liaisons, to help the lowest-performing schools," she said.

In the past, many of the state’s lowest-performing schools have been in Philadelphia, which, due to lack of sufficient revenue, is operating this year with reduced staffs, including a lack of counselors, librarians, and other key personnel. While Dumaresq said that there would be grant money available for school improvement, she downplayed the idea that a key to helping low-performing schools in the city is providing more resources.

"There are also a lot of high-performing schools in Philadelphia," she said. Superintendent William Hite, "will be looking at what they are doing in those schools that they are not doing in others. He will be asking that question." Rather than focus on money, she said, the District should "focus on things that need to be improved … and drive more specific improvement in to those schools that need the help."

The District laid off nearly 4,000 workers to make ends meet and asked the state and city for $180 million in additional revenue, in addition to seeking $133 million in labor savings. The city and state did not come up with that amount for this year — the state is holding back $45 million in appropriations approved by the legislature until concessions are made by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The two sides are still in negotiations.

Pennsylvania scrapped AYP when it received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required districts to get all students to proficiency in reading and math by 2014. That law, which took effect in 2002, ushered in a new era of accountability, which many complained relied too heavily on standardized testing. States have been seeking waivers from NCLB, which is seven years overdue for reauthorization.

Most states, including Pennsylvania, are now moving to implement the new Common Core standards, which were developed with the participation of most of them. Pennsylvania has begun implementing new subject-based Keystone Exams for high school to replace the PSSA, which is still used at the elementary level.

Dumaresq cautioned that many schools are likely to see drops as the new standards and testing are adopted, but added that this is partly the consquence of "adding more rigor."

Starting this year, schools in Pennsylvania will also be required to use test scores as part of teacher evaluations. Next year, they will also be used, in part, to evaluate principals. Dumaresq said that the state worked hard to make the evaluations more comprehensive, also adopting an observation protocol developed by Charlotte Danielson to identify the best practices of the most effective teachers.

The website will also include resources, such as lesson plans posted by model teachers, and will allow parents to compare up to four schools at a time based on numerous factors.

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