Pittsburgh’s weakest performing schools show scant progress from 2016 to 2019

Background

From PPS website September 2021:

“The Pittsburgh Public Schools will be one of America’s premier school districts, student-focused, well-managed and innovative.”

From Strategic Plan 2017-2022:

“We have much work to do. … Our graduation rate has dropped, enrollment continues to decline. …Yet there is reason to expect good things because of the strategies outlined herein.”

A review of the highly touted strategic plan’s performance

In 2016, the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) hired Anthony Hamlet as superintendent with great fanfare about new beginnings to turn around the district’s long slide in enrollment and academic performance. Would Hamlet be able to do what a long line of predecessors were unable to achieve?

Now that Superintendent Hamlet has abruptly resigned shortly into a second term, it is a good time to see if there has been any academic improvement in PPS schools, especially those that were posting dreadful results when Hamlet took the reins.

Because 2020 and 2021 state achievement tests—the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and the Keystone Exam—are not available at this time, we only have three years of test scores with which to evaluate fairly the superintendent’s impact.  It could be argued that two more years would have been necessary to make a fair assessment.  However, since the lives of students are enormously affected by the education, or lack of education, they are getting every year, it is justified to see if all the hype about all the changes and programs that were put in place had an impact from 2016 test scores to 2019 scores.      

All data are taken from the Pennsylvania Department of Education website data and reporting section.

Enrollment and spending 2016 and 2019

To begin, it is useful to show PPS’ enrollment and expenditures to illustrate the fact that students are not being shortchanged because of inadequate finances.  In the 2016-17 school year there were 23,286 enrolled students and the average daily membership (ADM) was 26,583. ADM includes all students in the district PPS is financially responsible for.  Current expenditure per ADM was $22,282. By the 2019-20 school year, ADM had fallen 3 percent to 25,744 and per ADM current expenditure had climbed 13.8 percent to $25,354.

By comparison, Peters Township had the sixth-highest academically rated high school and middle school in Pennsylvania with per ADM expenditures of $14,814 in the 2019-20 school year.

Choosing schools for evaluation

To evaluate the degree of progress in PPS schools, the focus of this Brief will be on the schools that were the poorest performing and where the opportunities for quick and meaningful improvement in test results were most needed and easily measured.   The measurement used is the change in PSSA math scores from 2016 to 2019 for grades 5, and 8 and the Keystone exam for grade 11. A group of poorest performing schools with 11th graders, 8th graders and 5th graders were selected to see if there was meaningful improvement. 

PSSA is the commonwealth’s test that assesses the scholastic achievement of students. Test results are grouped into four levels—advanced, proficient, basic and below basic. The key measure is the percent scoring proficient.  Students who are not proficient at grade level are clearly going to have trouble with the subject matter at the next higher grade.  The basic category recognizes some but inadequate mastery of the subject. Below basic points to both a failure to grasp the subject content and the strong likelihood of failure to catch up in later grades.  

Math is chosen for the annual test score comparisons because it has been the subject with the most trouble in recent years, although reading and language arts test results typically parallel math in most schools.

11th grade achievement results 

The analysis looked at four PPS high schools with the lowest statewide academic ranking—Brashear, Milliones, Perry and Westinghouse. Of 690 high schools, standard, charter and specialty schools in Pennsylvania ranked by SchoolDigger based on 2019 PSSA results, Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy was PPS’s highest ranked at 117, placing it in the top 20 percent. CAPA was second at 152, just outside the top 20 percent. Six schools were ranked below 500th with Brashear at 607, Perry at 635, Milliones at 639 and Westinghouse at 642.  The last three are in the bottom 10 percent of Pennsylvania high schools. There are several high schools in Philadelphia and Allentown that perform worse academically than the Pittsburgh schools. On the other hand, they spend $7,000-$9,000 less per student.

Results for the four schools are shown as averages for combined advanced and proficient and basic and below basic for 2016 and 2019.       

Year% Advanced and proficient% Basic and below basic
201624.475.6
201924.175.9

By way of comparison statewide, 63.3 percent of 11th graders scored at the advanced or proficient level in 2019.  Brashear at 32.6 percent was the highest scoring of the four schools but had a small decline from 2016.  Perry and Milliones posted marginal improvement in proficient but basic and below basic remain at double the state level.  Westinghouse’s performance worsened slightly over the three years as the basic and below basic rose 5 percentage points to 82.1 percent in 2019. 

Meanwhile, Peters Township High School offers a demonstration of the profound difference between really good school math performance and the PPS schools.  In 2019, Peters Township high had 56.3 percent advanced, 38.8 percent proficient (95.1 percent total), 4.3 percent basic and 0.6 percent below basic. All while spending $14,814 per ADM, nearly $11,000 less than PPS.  

8th grade achievement results

This section examines the improvement, or lack thereof, in 8th grade math scores for six schools with 8th grade students—at Langley; M.L. King; Mifflin; Milliones; Academy at Westinghouse and South Hills.   There were 22 PPS schools in the category in 2019 and 879 in schools in the state, including charters and other specialized schools. Eight are ranked in the lowest fifth statewide and five of those in the bottom 10 percent of Pennsylvania middle schools. Four of the five lowest are in this analysis group.

In the selected group of six schools, Mifflin was the highest rated statewide at 698.  Note that the highest ranked PPS middle school is the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy at 189. Two other schools, Brookline and Greenfield, were in the top third with all other in the bottom half of schools.

Results for the middle schools are shown as the six school average percentages for combined advanced and proficient and combined basic and below basic for 2016 and 2019.

Year% Advanced and proficient% Basic and below basic
20167.492.6
20194.495.6

Taken together the performance on 8th grade math worsened between 2016 and 2019. Mifflin had a big drop in proficient while only M.L. King showed measurable gains.  Every school except South Hills (89.4 percent) had over 90 percent basic or below basic. Westinghouse and Milliones were at 100 percent basic or below and zero percent proficient.

5th grade achievement results

SchoolDigger ranks 1,536 Pennsylvania elementary schools, including charters and specialty schools.  These schools are typically k-5 or k-8.  PPS has 34 schools in these grade groups ranked by SchoolDigger.  Changes in scores on 5th grade math will be used as the measure of whether there was any progress over the 2016 to 2019 period.  

Note that Colfax k-8 ranked 225 in 2019, the highest of any PPS elementary schools, placing it in the top 15 percent of the state’s schools.  Dilworth and Montessori ranked in the top third of schools. Two other schools were in the top 40 percent (Greenfield and Brookline), one between 40 and 50 percent and all others in the bottom half.   

Five of the lowest ranked PPS schools with 5th grade students were chosen to gauge progress—M.L. King; Arlington; Faison; Langley and Miller.  All the schools were in the lowest 10 percent with two in the lowest 5 percent.   

As with the high schools and middle schools, the results are shown as the five-school average of advanced and proficient and basic and below basic for 2016 and 2019.

Year% Advanced and proficient% Basic and below basic
20163.397.7
20193.896.2

With no meaningful improvement in the advanced or proficient scores or the basic and below basic scores, the conclusion is clear:  There has been no progress overall in the poorest scoring elementary schools. Langley did have a modest gain in advanced and proficient from 4.5 to 8.2 percent but still had well over 90 percent at the basic and below basic level. Miller remained mired at zero percent advanced or proficient. All this while per ADM spending increased 13 percent to $25,354 in 2019.

Meanwhile, statewide 5th graders averaged 43.1 percent advanced and proficient and 56.9 percent basic and below.  Clearly, both statewide and these PPS schools compare very poorly to very good schools. Mt Lebanon’s Markham Elementary 5th graders scored 95.7 percent advanced or proficient and 4.3 percent basic, no below basic with district expenditures of $16,474 in 2019.  

Summary of findings

This analysis examined the change in test score performance at the four weakest performing high schools (11th graders), six weakest performing middle schools (8th graders) and six elementary schools (5th graders).  There was overlap in the schools because some schools have both 5th and 8th and one has all three grades.

With only two exceptions there was no meaningful improvement in test scores for students in any school or any grades. Perry High, M.L. King 8th grade and Langley 5th grade saw a modest pickup in advanced and proficient, although these improvements still left very high percentages of test takers at the basic and below basic level.

Pittsburgh, the U.N. and the schools

Summary: Pittsburgh’s mayor has decided to adopt the United Nations’ goals for sustainability—which include providing quality education.  However, based on the most recent achievement test scores for Pittsburgh Public Schools, the goal of quality education will require more commitment by all concerned than we have seen.

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Recently Pittsburgh’s mayor, along with members of city government and local organizations, announced the city’s plan to adopt 17 sustainable goals the United Nations (U.N.) has identified for its future efforts.

The goals are “no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation and infrastructure, reduced inequality, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water, life on land, peace and justice, strong institutions and partnerships.”  The mayor said, “Working with stakeholders across the city, these goals will allow us to aid residents who need our help now and future generations of Pittsburghers to come.”

Sounds like Utopia in the making. Bear in mind, however, that one of the biggest failings of the U.N. is its so-called Human Rights Council that supposedly works to apply the “rights and freedoms” enumerated by the U.N.  With recent outgoing members including China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Rwanda and incoming members including Indonesia, Somalia, Pakistan, Bahrain, Sudan, Qatar and Venezuela it is reasonable to ask how much attention to basic human rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, right to own property and other fundamental rights the council actually intends to pursue diligently. These basic rights are just as or more important than a long wish list that cannot possibly be achieved absent honoring and protecting essential freedoms.

But one thing is sure.  The U.N. has its work cut out on the poverty goal. In 2018, the world average GDP per capita was $11,355, according to the International Monetary Fund. Of the 186 countries listed 126 have below world average GDP per capita while 44 are below $2,000. By comparison, the U.S. GDP stood at $62,600. Income figures by country track the GDP figures closely. U.S. and Pittsburgh median per capita incomes are close at around $34,000 in 2017. In short, poverty in the U.S. is certainly a far cry from poverty in most of the third-world countries.

Indeed, compared to most of the world, Pittsburgh and its population are doing very well on virtually all the listed U.N. goals. No doubt there is room for improvement in Pittsburgh, especially in the areas of economic and job growth, quality education and its water and sewer system.  While the universities, colleges and hospitals add greatly to the city’s economy and quality of life, the public schools as a whole are in woeful shape with far too many children not receiving the education necessary to be successful in today’s, or tomorrow’s, economy. There is little hope of solving the city’s pressing social problems unless or until there is substantial improvement in the public schools’ performance. 

Pennsylvania System for School Assessment (PSSA) achievement test statistics for the Pittsburgh Public Schools for the school year 2018-2019 are now available.  The news is not good.  Statistics for third grade reading achievement, regarded by some educators as a key to future academic performance, show half the students are not ready for the fourth grade.  In the 35 schools with third grade enrollment, 48 percent scored below the proficient level at the basic or below basic level in English Language arts—reading and writing. In 16 of the schools, over 50 percent were basic or below and in 10 over 70 percent were basic or below.  Math scores for the third grade were even worse.

In the 22 schools with eighth graders—Oliver and Online Academy not included—56 percent of PSSA test-takers scored at basic or below in English Language arts. Seven schools had 70 percent or more in the basic or below group with three at 80 percent or higher. Math results for eighth grade were even more appalling. Of the 1,362 PSSA test-takers, 80 percent scored basic or below (53 percent below basic). In 10 of the schools, 90 percent or more fell in the basic or below category.  In three schools not a single student scored at the proficient level. Two thirds of the mere 66 test-takers—out of the 1,362—scoring at the advanced level were accounted for by CAPA, Colfax and Greenfield.   

Compared to Pennsylvania’s all-school scores, Pittsburgh trails by significant margins despite atrocious percentages of scores below proficient for the state as a whole with 41 percent of Pennsylvania eighth graders basic or below in English Language arts and 70 percent basic or below in math. As noted in previous briefs, terrible scores from most of the schools in the huge Philadelphia district play a major role in the state’s overall poor academic performance.

Statewide, 63 percent of 11th graders scored proficient or better on the math exam. In Pittsburgh 50 percent of test takers were proficient or better.  However, absent the relatively good performances at CAPA, Allderdice and the Science and Technology Academy, only 37 percent scored proficient or advanced.    

But, as a reminder, spending more money on education does not necessarily translate into learning.  Consider Peters Township School District which spends $8,000 per student less than Pittsburgh and yet has 95 percent of 11th graders advanced or proficient in math with over 50 percent advanced. Not as dramatic but the same pattern holds true for advanced and proficient scores at Pine-Richland (90 percent), Mt. Lebanon (90 percent), and North Allegheny (86 percent). And consider the Windber School District in Somerset County where spending is $10,000 below Pittsburgh and a high percentage of kids come from poor families and yet they have 76 percent scoring advanced or proficient.

As demonstrated in Policy Briefs (Vol. 15, No. 30 and Vol. 19, No. 30), a high percentage of Pittsburgh schools suffer from extraordinary levels of absenteeism; a virtually perfect indicator of all the social and attitude problems that afflict education and learning. A school system that tolerates such woeful attendance problems will be incapable of achieving better academic results.

Why is school performance important? It is equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. Failure to address massive academic weakness makes any real progress on the U.N.’s social goals wish list impossible. When children are not educationally prepared to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, including economic self-sufficiency, the problems of dependency never end.  And that means addressing poverty and other social ills are made manifestly more difficult.

So, if the mayor is really looking for the most important thing he can do for the city, he should make dramatic improvement in school performance a top priority. Granted, the school district is a creature of the state and has its own governing powers and funding sources and can claim independence from the mayor. However, there are steps he can take. He can go to the governor and Legislature and ask that the state create a voucher program that will allow any and all parents who want to remove their students from failing district schools the ability and funding to enroll them in private or parochial schools of their choice. The district has magnet schools for limited numbers of students. Why not choice for all? The cost per student for those using vouchers would almost certainly drop precipitously compared to the $24,000 the district spends.

Second, the mayor can use his bully pulpit to call attention to the enormous negative impacts the poorly performing district has on the city’s ability to attract and keep people with school-age children. And it could also lead to lower a tax burden for property owners and residents paying the school earned-income tax.

The degree to which city officials want to reverse the decades long slide in population, especially families with school-age children, can be gauged by the seriousness they attach to finding ways to improve school performance.

Of course, it will be hard. The entire political clout of the teacher unions will be arrayed to fight meaningful changes. That is a major reason nothing ever gets done other than throwing money at the problem. It is not working. Year after year, graduation after graduation, a huge percentage of students are going into the world with totally inadequate reading, writing and arithmetic skills thinking they are prepared. This charade is a sham and immoral. Yet the district will spend $24,000 per student per year for 13 years to achieve this outcome for more than half of the students passing through.

Another greatly disappointing year for Pittsburgh Public Schools

Summary: Despite the upbeat slogans continuously trotted out by Pittsburgh Public Schools, the academic achievement of its students continues to disappoint.  This Brief looks at the dismal performance of the district’s 8th graders on the state’s standardized test.

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A couple of years ago, the newly installed superintendent presented a new five-year plan. The slogan for the new regime was “Expect Great Things”—not much of an improvement on the “Excellence for All” slogan previously touted.  At that time the Institute argued that while the objectives in the plan were mostly laudable, the steps and programs to live up to expecting great things were not likely to produce great things for all students.  And the plan avoided mentioning its most glaring problem—outrageously high levels of absenteeism.

The single best measure of how the schools are doing is the demonstrated academic achievement of the children in the district’s charge. And for the majority of schools the achievement levels are woeful.

This Brief looks at 8th grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) math exam results.

To be fair to the 8th graders in Pittsburgh, it should be pointed out that statewide, 8th grade scores are very weak.  In 2018, only 31 percent of 8th graders across the state scored at the proficient or advanced level. That means only 31 percent are actually ready to take on high school level work. And what is more startling is the large decline in the percent scoring proficient or above as students move to higher grades. In third grade 54 percent were proficient or higher but by 8th grade that percentage had fallen to 31 percent.  By 6th grade the percentage was already down to 39.6 percent. This could mean the tests get progressively harder or the concepts taught in each higher grade level rise in difficulty faster than the ability of kids to grasp them. Alternatively, it could mean that kids just become less enamored with learning and do not put in the necessary practice and study time.

In Pittsburgh 22 schools have 8th grade students although Pittsburgh Oliver has only 16 students and too few taking the math exam to warrant separate reporting.  Overall, 1,389 8th grade students took the PSSA exam.  Of that number 82, or 6 percent, scored at the advanced level and 192, or 14 percent, scored at the proficient level for a total of 20 percent proficient or better. This is 11 points lower than the state’s 31 percent proficient (21 percent) or advanced (10 percent).

But the Pittsburgh average score hides a very wide range of scoring by schools. Three schools (Colfax, CAPA and Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy) with a total enrollment of 240 of the 1,389 total 8th graders taking the test (17 percent) accounted for 55 of the 82 students (67 percent) at the advanced level and 85 of the 192 proficient scores. Fifteen schools had combined totals of fewer than 20 percent of students reaching combined advanced and proficient levels. Eleven schools had below 10 percent of their students reaching advanced or proficient.

Shockingly, four schools had no students at the proficient or advanced levels (King, Sunnyside, Pittsburgh Oliver and Milliones). Two more schools had only one at the proficient level and no advanced (Langley and Morrow). A total of 10 schools had five or fewer students scoring advanced or proficient. In addition to the six just mentioned, Academy at Westinghouse, Allegheny Traditional Academy, Arlington and Carmalt were in the five or fewer students in the proficient or advanced category. The 10 schools combined had 380 8th graders take the math exam and of that number only 14 students scored advanced or proficient with just three at the advanced level. These results are a scathing indictment of Pittsburgh schools.

The other way to look at the scores is to combine the basic and below basic scores. Basic means some grasp but not enough to be considered proficient in the subject at that grade level.  Students scoring at the basic level will find the next grade subject matter very difficult. Students scoring below basic have totally inadequate mastery of the material and can look for forward to a really hard time in the next grade—since they will not be held back. And as they move up the students who were barely proficient in 6th grade will almost certainly fall further behind in the 7th grade.

And so on through their elementary grades. These students will likely never catch up as they keep moving higher in grades having no mastery of the previous grade. Indeed, they are destined to fall further behind. Thus, much of the teachers’ time is spent in remedial education for the basic and below basic levels.

This pathetic performance by such a large percentage of Pittsburgh’s 8th graders is not the result of inadequate spending.  The district’s current expenditures per student stood at $22,282 in school year 2016-17—the latest official state-reported statistics.  No doubt spending was higher in the 2017-18 school year.  By comparison statewide the spending is just over $16,500.

For a stark comparison, consider Peters Township in Washington County where current expenditures per student were $13,193. The 324 8th graders in Peters Township had 41 percent scoring at the advanced level and 41 percent at the proficient level for a total of 82 percent. Basic and below basic were 13 and 5 percent, respectively. Not a single school in Pittsburgh, even the best magnet schools, came close to matching the achievement by Peters Township 8th graders. And all for $9,000 less per student than Pittsburgh spends.

There is little more to be said about the situation in Pittsburgh Public Schools. It is a disaster for far too many students. It is stuck, and has been stuck, in a politically driven management and education mentality that are not only failing students but constantly finding excuses for why they should not be blamed. They claim more money, more programs and more decades of experimentation will get the job done. But, as old timers used to say, “That dog won’t hunt.”

Teacher Union President Needs Some Education

In an opinion piece earlier this week the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association set out the teachers’ association position on the impending requirement for massive contribution increases to the Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS). Those increases will almost certainly necessitate hikes in state and school district taxes. Basically, teachers will help craft a solution to the pension funding crisis as long as they are not required to shoulder any of the burden.  That is to say, the unions will strongly oppose any reduction in future retirement benefits and any efforts to shift to a defined contribution system such as 401(k)s. So much for any real assistance. 

 

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