This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Say you’re someone who’s curious about taking a detailed look at how Pennsylvania’s schools, districts, and students performed over the past few years. As a researcher, policymaker, journalist — or anyone with an interest in exploring the data — it would be reasonable to expect test-score results to be made available in a similar format each year, in a spreadsheet form that can be easily sorted and manipulated.
Until two years ago, anyone could download the same Excel spreadsheets containing data sets of PSSA scores from the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website — all in the same, easy-to-mine, easy-to-compare format. Test results as far back as 1995 were all available via one web page.
But for the last two years of tests, unless you possessed the computational chops to extract an enormity of data from PDF files or separate web pages, you would be out of luck. That’s because the state stopped releasing the data in spreadsheet form and stopped highlighting year-to-year comparisons of proficiency rates for schools, districts, and the state as a whole.
What changed? The state switched its reporting under a new school rating system, now called the School Performance Profile, which uses multiple measures to assess performance (though it still relies mostly on standardized test scores).
At the request of the Notebook, Michael Churchill, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, filed a Right-to-Know Law request for test data as it was presented in previous years. He received the following response, in part.
Since PDE has implemented the SPP, records pertaining to PSSA and Keystones can be found as a component of a school’s SPP score on PDE’s website at [LINK], which is the link for SPP. Therefore, in the normal course of business, PDE does not create the records you are requesting or compile or format the information in that manner. PDE is not required to create a record which does not currently exist or to compile, maintain, format or organize the record.
Luckily, before his request, co-chairs of the state Senate’s Education Committee had requested some of that data for their own analyses. As a courtesy to the senators, the department sent the documents in Excel spreadsheet format. Those documents, with the exception of the 2013-2014 PSSA scores (which were not requested by the senators and therefore not compiled) — were shared.
The Notebook hasn’t gone through the various datasets yet, but we are providing them now so that anyone who has been wanting or searching for that information can have it.