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Hard-to-get state test results show a pattern of decline

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

Over the past several years, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has revamped state tests and emphasized the importance of student scores as key to evaluating schools and teachers.

But PDE has also made it very difficult to discern statewide trends in test scores during the Corbett administration.

It did not release any 2014 scores until mid-November this year, and statewide 2013 data was not prominent on PDE’s website. That site has a page with 17 years of annual results on standardized tests in spreadsheet form, but PDE stopped posting those after 2012.

When 2014 scores were still unavailable a week before the gubernatorial election, it prompted a Notebook/NewsWorks examination of the available data, showing that scores declined in both 2012 and 2013, in almost every grade, subject, and student subgroup. Drops were especially noticeable among students of color, those with disabilities, the economically disadvantaged, and English language learners.

Several weeks after the election, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obtained an unpublished 2014 PDE report showing that scores had declined between 2011 and 2014 in virtually all grades, subjects, and subgroups.

The declines coincided with a drop in funds of nearly a billion dollars available to districts starting in 2011, which caused the loss of more than 27,000 teacher positions and other drastic cutbacks in schools.

Some money has been restored, but districts – especially Philadelphia – are still operating with less than they had in 2010-11, before Corbett took office.

“The causation is hard to prove, but the correlation is powerful,” said Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center.

He noted that scores had steadily climbed in the years immediately before, when state aid increased under Gov. Ed Rendell.

Other things have changed since 2011. A statewide cheating scandal resulted in more stringent test security measures starting in 2012 and a drop in scores that year. Test changes are being phased in to align them with more stringent state standards. But Cowell said that the trends are still clear. Pennsylvania went from having several years of steady across-the-board increases to several years of steady across-the-board declines.

Poorer districts, those like Philadelphia that are most reliant on state aid, felt the brunt of the cuts. And the drop in proficiency rates was steepest among the most vulnerable student subgroups.

For instance, according to the report obtained by the Post-Gazette, between 2011 and 2014 math proficiency rates on the PSSA in grades 3 through 8 declined from 60 percent to 48 percent among Black students; among English language learners, they fell from 44 percent to 31 percent, and for students with disabilities, from 51 to 38 percent.

In reading, the drops were less steep, but still significant.

Pass rates have been dismal on the state’s new Keystone exams, a requirement for graduation starting with the class of 2017. Statewide, they have hovered around 40 percent for Math and Biology, with just over half of high school students passing the Literature exam.

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