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How do demographics affect performance at public high schools?

Exterior of the School District of Philadelphia headquarters.
Photo: Emma Lee/NewsWorks

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

Last week, I wrote a story about Chrislie Dor, a Philadelphia School District student who applied to two District-run magnet high schools.

If accepted, she said, she would attend one of those schools. If not, she said, she’d enroll in a high school run by a charter organization.

Comprehensive neighborhood high schools did not seem like a good option to her and her family.

This week, Chrislie learned she was accepted to the Creative and Performing Arts High School (CAPA), the District-run magnet that she had dreamed of attending.

In researching the story, I compiled a table based on the most-up-to-date state data to illustrate how student demographics differ at the city’s public high school offerings – both District- and charter-run.

Here I want to explore that data in further detail, first by comparing the differences among the city’s highest- and lowest-achieving public high schools.

For the sake of this discussion, the terms high-achieving and low-achieving here are based on the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s School Performance Profile (SPP) score.

SPP is a metric that the state introduced at the beginning of this school year that aggregates verifiable data including, but not limited to, standardized test scores.

The data presented here represent the city’s high schools now in operation for which data is available. Closed schools were not counted.

Economically disadvantaged English
language learners
Special education Boys Girls Average SPP
Top 10 public high schools in Philly by SPP score* 45.43% 0.91% 7.51% 47.24% 52.82% 87.69
Bottom 10 public high schools in Philly by SPP score** 95.44% 9.67% 26.42% 51.19% 48.1% 34.88
*6 District-run, 4 charter **8 District-run, 2 charter

As the table shows, high-achieving schools share certain demographic traits: serving populations that are wealthier, more female and less encumbered with learning impediments.

The opposite is true of low-achieving schools.

There are, of course, schools that buck demographic trends and either outperform or underperform expectations. (Below, I’ve included a full list of Philadelphia public high schools to analyze and compare.)

Exact comparisons, though, are difficult to make – especially between District- and charter-run schools.

Take the term economically disadvantaged as an example. The Philadelphia School District computes that metric by school using a theoretical formula that takes census data into account.

Charter schools, on the other hand, ask families to fill out and return a form that asks personal financial questions. Neither method is an exact science. Both could yield results that either inflate or deflate the accurate number.

Special-education statistics are equally messy. The term covers a wide range of disabilities, with huge variations in their impact on learning ability and the cost to educate.

We are able, though, to glean some insights when comparing the special-ed statistics of District-run and charter-run schools globally.

The state’s 2011-12 special-education data show that, compared to the city’s charters, the Philadelphia School District serves a disproportionate amount of the special-education students thought to be most difficult and resource-draining to educate.

These are students who fall into special-education categories such as emotional disturbance, autism, intellectual disability, and visual and hearing impairments.

Comparing individual schools along these special-ed categories, though, is difficult. The data breakdown is publicly available for individual charters, but not for individual District-run schools.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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