Disappointing PSSA results for 2018

Summary: Pennsylvania has its third through eighth graders take Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests annually. These tests are designed to assess academic achievement in three areas—math and language arts, as well as science, in fourth and eighth grades. Eleventh graders for the last few years have taken the Keystone exams in math, literature, and science rather than PSSA tests.  This Brief focuses on the PSSA scores.


2018 scores for the state have been posted.  Student achievement is assigned to one of four levels: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. Of course, the desired level is proficient or advanced. Advanced recognizes the student’s achievement to be above, or well above, the level necessary to move up to the next grade.  A proficient rating means the student has a grade-level mastery of the subject adequate to move on to the next grade. Basic means the student has some understanding but not sufficient to move on without remedial help. Below basic means the student has little or no grasp of the subject matter taught in that grade.

Suffice to say, the 2018 results are not encouraging.  First of all, the percentage of students scoring advanced or proficient in math fell slightly from the 2017 level in grades three, four, six and eight. The percentage advanced or proficient edged a bit higher in fifth and seventh grades. Only in third grade did more than half of students score proficient or higher, 54.5 percent in 2017 and 54.1 percent in 2018. That means that for every other grade the combined percentage of basic or below basic is above 50 percent.

The worst of the findings in the PSSA results is the sharp decline in scores with each higher grade in both 2017 and 2018. In 2018, the third grade combined basic and below basic percentage was 45.9. By sixth grade that combined percentage climbed to 60.5 percent and by eighth grade reached 69 percent.

English language arts scores tend to run higher than the math scores but remain well below levels the state should find acceptable. About 40 percent of students in each grade from third to eighth scored in the combined basic and below basic categories. And while better than the near 60 percent scoring basic or below basic in math in all grades but the third, 40 percent falling behind in third through eighth grades is a huge problem, especially for the high percentages of eighth graders who will be entering high school unprepared for ninth grade in math and English language arts.

Moreover, with only 53 percent of eighth graders scoring proficient or higher in the science portion of the exam, the inadequacy of preparation for high school is even more pronounced.

A very interesting statistic is found in the Education Department’s PSSA results report.  750,302 third through eighth grade students were tested in 2018. Of that number 414,495 are classified as historically underperforming. That means they are either economically disadvantaged, English learners or have an individualized education plan. A student falling into more than one of those categories is counted just once.

What an amazing statistic—55.2 percent of elementary school test takers are classified as historically underperforming (HU). It is stunning to contemplate that well over half of Pennsylvania elementary students are in the HU classification. One would assume that the bulk of these children are in the HU grouping because of economics. But that begs the question of how poor does a child’s family have to be to qualify as disadvantaged. And given that school and transport, and in many cases breakfasts and lunches, are free, it must be that the category is trying to capture something else that is detrimental to learning.

And as it happens, the HU students as categorized by the Education Department do underperform the average of all students; indeed they bring down the all-student average.  The underperformance occurs in all three subjects tested—math, English and science.  For example, in math 47 percent of the HU students in third through eighth grades scored below basic while the all-student average was 31.9 percent. Likewise the HU students had a much lower percentage of advanced or proficient at 25.2 percent compared to 42 percent for the all-student average. Using the state’s data for the average and HU student scores for the proficient or higher rating of third through eighth students, the scoring percentage for the non-HU students can be calculated. In math, those students would have had a combined proficient and advanced percentage of 62.7

And while the numbers for science and English are better, overall the pattern of HU students falling well short of the average scores is maintained.

How is it that “historically underperforming” seems to have a great impact on learning but not sports performance?  In 2017 Aliquippa’s 11th graders (59 test takers) performed poorly on math with 71 percent basic or below basic and only 27 percent proficient. And remember that the math test is on Algebra I which can be taken just before the exam. In science these students had 83 percent score basic or below basic.  Note that of the 59 test takers, 58 are classified as historically underperforming. Yet despite the inability of the vast majority of students to show meaningful academic achievement, the football team just won its 17th WPIAL championship in its division and another state title. Does this mean poor children cannot learn math or science but they can master a complex and demanding sport? Priorities appear to be misplaced.

Indeed, are there no academic requirements to play sports?

Pennsylvania needs to get over its excuse-making for poor academic performance, especially considering the sums spent on remedial education and other special programs aimed at improving quality of education.

Some Reality in Education Funding Debates Would Be Helpful

Recently the Governor visited the Clairton School District’s elementary school to continue his push for a much greater level of education funding.  He took the time to chide the Legislature for not allocating enough money to help districts such as Clairton.  He is quoted as saying “I understand that you can’t throw money at any problem, but you can’t keep taking money out…and hope to get a good result.”  The Governor ought to be reminded that over the years, more and more money has been thrown at the problem with little or no improvement in academic achievement.  Our Policy Briefs over the past few years have demonstrated this conclusion many times.


But one more demonstration is called for in view of the fact that the Governor is making the rounds of schools to make his case for more funding.  And, since he was in Clairton to make his pitch, we will start there.  Pennsylvania Department of Education Statistics (DoE) data for the 2004-2005 school year put Clairton City School District total revenue at $12.82 million.  Breaking that down by source, the District collected $3.49 million locally (27 percent), $8.04 million from the state (63 percent) and the remaining amount from Federal sources $1.26 million (about ten percent).


Nearly a decade later,  revenue data for the 2013-2014 school year (the latest available from the DoE), place total revenues at $14.19 million, an increase of nearly eleven percent from 2004-2005.  Again, breaking out the sources of the money shows that the local contribution was $3.88 million (27 percent), the state pitched in $9.63 million (68 percent) while the Fed’s allocation fell to $674,771 (4.75 percent).  The state’s allocation increased by nearly twenty percent, local funding increased over eleven percent, while Federal funding fell by nearly half.  Clearly the money from the state and local taxpayers has been increasing, not falling, over time.


The following table shows how Clairton stacks up with other Pennsylvania districts that have similar enrollment levels for the period studied:  Farrell, Wilkinsburg, and Windber.


District Total Revenues (000s) State Revenues (000s)
2004-05 2013-14 % Change 2004-05 2013-14 % Change
Clairton City SD $12,821 $14,192 10.69 $8,038 $9,635 19.87
Farrell Area SD $13,700 $15,623 14.04 $8,213 $10,188 24.05
Wilkinsburg SD $27,967 $29,652 6.02 $10,415 $11,662 11.97
Windber Area SD $13,240 $15,269 15.32 $9,732 $11,405 17.19



The table above shows that none of the districts experienced a decline in revenue over the decade, either from the state or in total.  However, it does show that the percent increases in state revenue are much larger than boosts in overall revenue. Funding from Federal sources was cut for all but one of the districts (Windber rose 26.75 percent).  Conversely, local funding rose for these four districts.  Contrary to the Governor’s statement above, money has not been taken out of these districts at either the total, state, or local level.


Of course changes in the amounts of revenue are only part of the story. It is also important to look at per pupil numbers. Clairton’s enrollment in 2004-2005, (measured by average daily membership (ADM)) stood at 984.  However, by the 2013-14 school year it had fallen by about seven percent to 917.  Farrell’s enrollment fell 21.4 percent to 836; Wilkinsburg was off 29.3 percent to 1,265 and Windber declined by 15.37 percent to 1,210. As we noted in an earlier Policy Brief (Volume 15, Number55), the hold harmless provision prevents state basic education funding from falling even if enrollment does drop.


These changes in ADM affect the per pupil revenue amounts received by each district.  For the 2013-2014 academic year, Clairton’s total revenue per ADM was $15,478, a near 19 percent jump over the 2004-2005 levels.  This per pupil amount exceeds Windber ($12,621, up 36 percent) but is well below Wilkinsburg ($23,437, up nearly 50 percent), and Farrell ($18,695, up 45 percent).  Again with state revenues continuing to increase, along with local allocations, combined with declines in enrollment kept per pupil revenues climbing.


But, what about the amount of money spent on education?  The Governor and many educrats rarely, if ever, bring up the subject of district spending.  The following table looks at the total spending of the four districts in our sample.


District Total Expenditures (000s) Total Expenditures per ADM
2004-05 2013-14 % Change 2004-05 2013-14 % Change
Clairton City SD $13,317 $14,176 6.45 $13,540 $15,460 14.18
Farrell Area SD $13,378 $15,463 15.59 $12,570 $18,503 47.20
Wilkinsburg SD $26,696 $29,599 10.87 $14.930 $23,395 56.70
Windber Area SD $13,555 $15,502 14.36 $9,493 $12,814 34.98


The table above shows that each district in this small sample had jumps in the amount of total expenditures over the ten year period.  Clairton had the smallest rise while the largest went to Farrell.  More importantly, when compared to the increases to total revenues, only Clairton and Windber had the growth to revenues outpace those of total expenditures.


Against the backdrop of enrollment, we get a better idea of how much is being spent on a per-pupil basis.  As mentioned above, the ADM for these four districts in this sample fell, while for every district total expenditures climbed over the last ten years.  Clairton’s total expenditures per pupil came in at $15,460 (a little below the per-pupil revenues). Clairton total spending per student was about $400 above the state average. The District also spends about $1,600 more per pupil than the state average spending on instruction.


At $12,814 in per pupil expenditures, Windber had the lowest cost of educating its students in the sample. The Windber number is well below Clairton ($15,460), Farrell ($18,500) and Wilkinsburg ($23,395).


Clearly, the increase in education spending and revenues would not be as much of an issue if academic performance was stellar.  As we have said time and again, throwing money at the problem does not guarantee good results.


The following table illustrates the performance of 11th grade students on the Keystone Exams and the attendance rate of the highs schools in each district.


11th Grade Keystone Exams (2013-2014) % Scoring Advanced or Proficient in… Attendance (%)
District Math Reading
Clairton City HS 35.00 43.00 88.64
Farrell Area HS/UMS 18.00 32.00 93.95
Wilkinsburg HS 5.00 6.00 82.17
Windber Area HS 76.00 81.00 94.17


The percent of students scoring advanced or proficient in math is poor in three of the districts but truly abysmal in Wilkinsburg where spending per student is the highest. Only Windber posted a respectable score and it has the lowest expenditures per pupil. The results are similar with the reading portion of the exam.  Windber is the outlier in this sample.  They have a fairly high level of academic achievement yet, on a per-student basis, they spend far less than Clairton, Farrell and Wilkinsburg.


The final indicator taken into consideration is the attendance rate for the respective high schools.  It is no surprise that the district with the worst test scores also had the poorest attendance 82 percent —Wilkinsburg.  We documented the relationship between attendance and academic performance in an earlier Policy Brief (Volume 15, Number 30).


Clairton had an attendance rate below 90 percent while Windber’s was over 94 percent.  The seeming outlier is Farrell.  However, Farrell’s attendance rate also includes that of their upper middle school (UMS) which includes 7th and 8th graders.  Middle school grades typically have better attendance rates than the high schools and it is very possible the overall rate is being lifted by these middle school grades.


In short, the Governor’s call for huge increases in state education funding money is ill-conceived and specious. Data show that poorly performing districts receive and spend plenty of money, most of which comes from state taxpayers.  Yet academic results are frequently simply abominable especially in districts getting per-pupil state funding in excess of the state average. There are several additional PA districts besides those discussed here—such as Pittsburgh—that also spend large sums for mediocre results.


Rather than blithely repeating claims that education spending is inadequate, the Governor should be concerned about how so much state money can be spent and yet produce so little in the way of academic achievement. Maybe he could even ask his so-called experts if they have an answer to that question.  Obviously, if money were the answer, the problem would have been solved long ago. It would be instructive to spend some time studying districts such as Windber to see what they are doing to achieve good results with well below state average spending. As a start, the study might focus some attention on attendance rates that are so problematic at many of the failing schools.

Graduation Exams: Closing the Barn Door?

There is widespread and understandable concern about the high percentage of Pennsylvania’s high school graduates who are deficient in reading, writing, quantitative and reasoning skills. Anecdotal survey results show that only 7 percent of businesses polled are very confident that state graduates have the skills to enter the workplace. Little wonder the state education establishment and business leaders support a graduation exam that must be passed before a regular diploma can be awarded.

While the idea of people showing they have mastered skills sufficient to earn a diploma sounds quite reasonable, in the case of public, compulsory education with social promotion the norm, it is just a pipe dream. It is simply not reasonable to expect that a student who has been pushed on to the next grade regardless of academic achievement for eleven and a half years is going to be able to master twelfth grade level math and reading skills in time to take a test. When they fail the test and fail the re-test, is the school district going to deny them a diploma? Not likely. Lawsuits from the ACLU or other organizations would be on their doorsteps almost instantly.

The problem must be dealt with much earlier. For example, tests should be given at the end of each school year to measure progress. No one would be passed along to higher grades if they fail the tests. Remedial efforts over the summer or in after school programs at an early age would be far more beneficial.

Moreover, tests should not be limited to reading and math. Students should have to know something and be tested on it as well. By high school they should know basic science, some history and geography. By eleventh grade they should know U.S. history, civics, some literature, and economics. Producing students who can do math and read but are virtual ignoramuses is not true education.

If the state wants to get serious about improving education it must be willing to tackle the difficult issues head on. Any school district or school with more than 25 percent of students failing to show proficiency on the year-end tests for two years running would be taken over by the state. Parents of the students would be given the choice of staying in the state managed school or given a voucher for 75 percent of the per pupil spending in that school to be used at the non-public school of their choice.

In state managed schools, no teacher or administrator would be retained after the current contract was complete. All would have to reapply for jobs and be hired on the basis of competency and proven performance. The threat of losing jobs might act as an inducement to do a better job during the remaining years on the contract. Of course, this is a pipe dream as well. The PSEA and other unions and their allies in the Legislature will never allow meaningful reform.

Graduation exams are just the latest diversion to make the public think something is actually being done that will improve Pennsylvania’s education performance.