Poor PSSA scores presage poor Keystone Exam scores

Background: In Policy Brief Vol. 22, No. 13, the Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement were shown to be a very severe problem for Pennsylvania’s system of public education. In 2021, of the juniors taking the tests 37.6 percent failed to score at the proficient level in math and 50 percent in English (note that only 11 percent of 11th graders took the English portion of the exams.)

If the initial provision that required proficiency on the exams were still in effect, nearly 40 percent of 2022 seniors hoping to graduate would not have received diplomas. However, as the earlier Brief noted, the requirement has been postponed several times and now is slated to go into effect in 2023, barring yet another legislative postponement to go with the four that have already been enacted.


PSSA scores as a leading indicator

But the Keystone Exams are not the only state-required achievement tests that point to serious educational deficiencies in Pennsylvania’s public schools.  Indeed, one explanation of why the high percentages of students scoring below proficient on Keystone tests in 2021—and preceding years—can be found in the surprisingly poor scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests in earlier years dating to 2015.  Bear in mind that 11th-grade Keystone test takers in 2021would have been in 8th grade in 2018. 

Making the reasonable assumption that the overwhelming majority of the 8th-grade cohort in 2018 made up the 11th grade test takers in 2021, the PSSA scores of those 8th-graders in 2018 should be fairly good predictor of 11th-grade Keystone Exams performance in 2021. And, indeed, they are.  On the PSSA math test, 69 percent of 8th-grade test takers statewide in 2018 failed to score at the proficient level and 38.5 percent were below proficient on the English test.

Note that 2018 was not an anomaly for PSSA results. The 11th graders would have been in 7th grade in 2017. That year 62 percent of 7th graders failed to achieve the proficient level in math and 41.5 percent were below proficient in English. And the pattern continues back to 2016 when the group was in the 6th grade. That year, 59 percent of 6th-grade test takers were below proficient in math and 38.4 percent were below proficient in English.

Thus, large percentages of below-proficient students in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades that went on to make up the preponderance of 11th graders taking the Keystone Exams in 2021 were simply moved up each year to the next grade despite not being able to do grade-level math or English or both. Why would it be a surprise that the 69 percent of students who were not proficient in 8th-grade math failed in large numbers to score at the proficient or higher level on the 11th-grade math test despite the test being given at the end of the Algebra I course they had presumably just passed? 

It is important to mention here that the percent scoring below proficient on the 2019 math Keystone Exam was 36.7 percent, quite close to the 2021 level of 37.6 percent. Thus, any pandemic-induced effect was fairly minimal for the math exam. However, the number of test takers was down 31 percent, which might have affected the result. Over the longer period since 2015, the percentage below proficient, except for a dip in 2016, has moved upward marginally from the 35.5 percent figure posted in 2015 (the first publicly released numbers) to reach the 36.7 percent mark in 2019.

Poor test scores point to a need for massive reforms   

All the forgoing recitation of unfortunate test scores suggests there is a huge failure of public education in Pennsylvania. Either that or the achievement tests being administered are far too hard and need to be re-designed.  In that regard, consider that even schools with superb academic rankings do not have all students scoring proficient in 8th-grade math.

For instance, in 2018 Julia Masterman in Philadelphia, which perennially ranks near the very top in the state academically, had 7 percent of 8th graders failing to reach proficiency in math. Note, too, that according to School Digger rankings for 2021, Peters Township Middle School, 10th ranked of 797 middle schools in the state and the second best in Southwest Pennsylvania, had 17.9 percent of 8th graders score below proficient in math in 2018.  Another strong school, Jefferson Middle in Mt Lebanon (11th ranked in the state), had 27 percent below proficient. In short, very good schools still posted what would normally be considered worrisome levels of below-proficient scores.

Meanwhile, in 2018, Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) had two schools with zero percent of test takers scoring proficient and three schools with under 5 percent of 8th graders scoring at the proficient level in math. The best performance in the PPS was at the Science and Technology Academy with 40.6 percent below proficient, which seems high but was significantly better than the state average of 69 percent.

Still, there can be little doubt that, notwithstanding the likelihood the tests may be difficult, many schools are performing very badly, both absolutely and relative to the average or better schools. To be sure, in order to average 69 percent below proficient statewide, many schools had to be well above that level in the 80 and 90 percent range.  This means huge numbers of students are being promoted year after year with little—and certainly an inadequate—grasp of mathematics.

Indeed, the state must address the problem head on. Reducing the difficulty of the tests could give a fairer reading of students’ grade level achievement. But in the schools that currently have extraordinarily high rates of poor test performance and where major reforms in instruction and test taking are not carried out, there will undoubtedly remain an unacceptably high percentage of students exhibiting seriously inadequate evidence of learning.


The practice of promoting children with an unacceptably poor grasp of the basic subjects on to higher grades each year simply condemns them to years of below-acceptable performance—and, eventually, a high school diploma that reflects little more than the years the students spent in school.

One thing is certain: Until the Governor and Legislature stand ready to take on teacher unions, entrenched state education department employees and school boards of districts with high percentages of inadequately prepared students and enact major reforms, the status quo of unsatisfactory results will continue and tens of thousands of students will graduate each year with serious deficits in literacy and numeracy. And the futures of many of these graduates will be diminished accordingly.

Pennsylvania’s state school funding disparities and irrationalities

Summary: A review of spending and academic achievement finds there is no positive correlation between the level of state funding received by districts and their academic achievement. That is to say, higher state funding per student does not translate into improved district achievement.


Pennsylvania’s school district funding data are available through school year 2016-2017. These data point to a bizarre allocation of state dollars. A key issue is that the level of state funding by district has no positive correlation with district academic achievement. Indeed, for the 49 districts receiving above $9,500 per student in state revenue (the state funding average for all districts was $6,578) and having total state and local revenue above the state average of $16,372, higher combined state and local revenue is actually associated with lower state academic ranking, although the association falls short of statistical significance. These school districts average $18,955 in total state and local revenue, ranging from $17,004 to $25,553, and average state revenue of $12,122 with a range of $9,684 to $17,741 per pupil.

In-depth statistical analysis of this group also finds that higher state funding per student is not positively related to better school achievement as indicated by district rankings that are driven by scores on PSSA and Keystone exams.

In the following discussion, all revenue figures are per student. To be precise, per average daily membership, and, for all practical purposes, per student.

State funding for the 499 districts ranges from a low of $3,018 to a high of $17,741; 287 districts received above average funding with 138 districts receiving more than $9,500. Meanwhile 212 districts received $6,500 or less with 46 under $4,000 and 12 less than $3,500. The lowest state-funded district received only 17 percent as much funding as the highest and less than half the state average.

Note that federal dollars were excluded from the revenue totals. Including them would have only made the relationship between total revenue and achievement worse. The larger amounts of these funds are typically given to districts struggling academically.

To be sure, there are districts with well above average total revenues that have good to strong academic achievement rankings but do not receive high levels of state funding. These tend to be found in fairly well-to-do suburban neighborhoods. In Allegheny County for instance, Fox Chapel, Quaker Valley, Pine-Richland, North Allegheny, Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair all receive $4,500 or less from the state but have above $17,000 in total revenue. And therefore must raise the lion’s share of revenue from within their districts.

Meanwhile, for school districts that have combined state and local revenue totals of $15,000 or less and under $7,000 in state revenue, the relationship between revenue and achievement rankings confirms the revenue versus achievement results for the higher revenue districts discussed above.  This group contains 67 districts. The average total revenue for the group was $13,927 compared to $18,954 for the high revenue grouping discussed above. Revenue ranged from $12,003 to $14,999. State revenue averaged $5,475 and local revenue $8,450. Thus, these districts received, on average, less than half the amount of state funding than the high revenue group. At the same time, they locally raised $1,600 more per student.

Analysis of this group finds that while there was a very modest positive relation between district revenue and state achievement ranking it was not a statistically significant finding. There was, however, a marked difference in the two groups of districts in terms of average achievement rankings.  The 67 districts with $5,000 less than the high revenue districts and, with $6,650 lower state funding, posted an average state ranking of 225th highest out of 603 ranked districts and charter schools.  The higher revenue districts had an average ranking of 329th highest out of 603.

As expected, when data for the two groups are combined, in-depth analysis shows a very strong negative relationship between revenue and achievement. That is to say that higher revenue is associated with worse achievement. While overall significance is not comfortably high, the 95 percent confidence range for the numerical estimate of the relationship is narrow enough to confirm the straightforward evaluation using the average rankings that show the lower revenue group has better academic achievement than the high revenue group.

Some extreme examples will illustrate the oddity that is the state’s funding of school districts. Consider that Peters Township is the No. 1 academically ranked district in the state and has state and local revenue per student of $14,831 with state funds accounting for only $3,608 of that. Why the high ranking? Ninety-five percent of 8th graders were advanced or proficient in language arts, 87 percent in math and 92 percent in science. Elementary grades also performed extremely well. Keystone exam results showed 93.4 percent advanced or proficient in math, 91 percent in biology and 95 percent in literature.

Compare that to Duquesne with $20,000 per student with $17,741 of that from the state and an academic ranking of 589th of 603, or 14th from the worst. What accounted for that low rating? The district has one school, an elementary school through grade six. Only 6.9 percent of the sixth-grade class scored proficient in math with 93.1 percent scoring basic and below basic. Sadly, 72.4 percent are below basic which means they have no grasp of the material. Meanwhile, Wilkinsburg had state and local revenue of $25,553, of that $13,134 state funding. Wilkinsburg ranked 542nd in the state.  Pittsburgh had $22,603 in state and local revenue with $10,475 in state funds. Pittsburgh’s test scores that led to the low ranking of 471st are discussed in full in Policy Brief Vol. 19 No. 3. Finally, Farrell had local and state revenue of $21,162 with $15,671 from the state. Academic rank? 538th.

How can the state send so much money to some districts and get so little in return in academic achievement? Is there no mechanism for accountability?  And how do these districts get so much more money per student than the state average of $6,578 so that many districts will get much less than the state average, such as Peters with $3,608?

And consider the other side of this puzzle. The Hazelton School District had $11,779 in revenue with $6,562 from the state. Hazelton’s academic rank was a very poor 492nd with 8th graders at most middle schools scoring very poorly on all subjects, particularly math. Then there is the Wilkes-Barre district with a ranking of 505th. The district had revenue of $14,512 with $6,372 from the state.  How is it that Hazelton and Wilkes-Barre get so relatively little per student support from the state while six districts in Mercer County get over $10,000 and seven districts in Somerset County get over $10,000?

One possibility is the hold-harmless provision that for decades has kept basic education funding growing in districts with declining enrollment so that the per-student revenue rises at these schools if they maintain local support at the same level or a little higher.  If that is the case, then a dreadful injustice is being visited on the schools that have not had enrollment declines or have had enrollment increases.

That would certainly explain in large part the situation in Pittsburgh where enrollment has plummeted from over 40,000 to 24,000 over the last few decades. Duquesne and Wilkinsburg likely fit this category as well. No doubt it applies to many districts across the state that have watched enrollment fall.

But what a perverse incentive. Just lose enrollment and get more money per student from the state to pay employees more and start programs and hire all sorts of professionals. Too bad all that has done little to improve the dreadful education outcomes which have likely been a major cause of the loss of enrollment.

In simplest terms, hold-harmless funding must end. It has made matters worse, education is not improving and it is unconscionably unfair to other districts that could actually put the money to better use.

Or if they cannot put it to better use, cut the education budget. The taxpayers could use a break.

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.



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.”

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.

Common Core Tests Have Created Challenging Results

The results of the 2015 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams have been released and they are causing quite a commotion.  The exams, given to students in grades three through eight, contained the new Common Core standards as recommended by the Federal Department of Education. 11th graders are not examined by Common Core based PSSA exams because the state replaced the PSSA with the Keystone exams for high school students.


The statewide average for the math test for all tested students, grades three through eight, shows a sharp drop from 73.3 percent proficient or advanced in 2014 to 39.7 percent proficient or advanced in 2015. For the language arts exam the number scoring proficient or advanced fell from 69.2 percent in 2014 to 60 percent in 2015. Clearly, the Common Core based math test is more demanding than the old PSSA while the language arts test is more difficult and was expanded to include writing as well as reading. Similar results have been reported by other states after they adopted Common Core. Not only were the tests made more demanding but higher percentages of correct responses are now required to rank proficient or advanced.


What else can we learn from these dramatic scoring changes in Pennsylvania?


First of all, we can determine if there are major variations in how the different grades were affected by the new tests. Second, we can explore how math testing was changed compared to the language arts exam. Third we can ascertain how poorly performing schools were affected compared to how strongly performing schools were affected by the more rigorous testing. To carry out this analysis, nine school districts from Allegheny County and one from Washington County were selected.  The sample contains five districts that are considered academically weak performers:  Clairton, Pittsburgh, Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg, and Woodland Hills.  Five districts are considered to be strong performers: Hampton, Mt. Lebanon, North Allegheny, Peters (Washington County), and Pine-Richland.  Test results for fifth and eighth grades were used in the analysis.


As it happens, the results on the new language arts test for the fifth grade students appear to have little impact. For the districts that are considered low performing there were no really worrisome changes from 2014 to 2015.  Indeed, while the five district average for those scoring advanced declined by less than two percentage points (7.1 to 5.3), the average scoring proficient rose two percentage points (26.9 to 28.9). A somewhat encouraging change was the decline in the percentage scoring below basic (40 to 31) with most apparently moving into the basic group which climbed from 26 percent to 34 percent in 2015.


For the poor performing districts the language arts test was either not made much more difficult –perhaps even easier with the addition of the writing component—or the students were somewhat better prepared in 2015 than 2014.


For the five strong performance school districts, the effect of the shift to Common Core on language arts test results for fifth grades was generally positive in terms of the students scoring higher than in 2014.  Their district averages for the percentages reaching advanced and proficient actually rose: advanced (44.7 to 46) and proficient (41.6 to 44.5). At the same time the already low percentages of basic and below basic percentages dropped a couple of points: basic (9.2 to 7.4) and below basic (4.5 to 2). Although on average the gains were modest, Hampton had a nice jump with the combined percentage of advanced or proficient up significantly from 84 in 2014 to 94 percent in 2015.


In brief, the Common Core based fifth grade language arts test has not presented any significant difficulties beyond those already posed by the old PSSA exam.


Meanwhile, the performance on the Common Core test for fifth grade math was a much different story with scoring decidedly weaker than in 2014.  All ten districts in the sample experienced decreases in the percentage scoring advanced/proficient.  For the weaker five districts the average percentage scoring at the advanced level fell sharply from 24 to four percent, the average for proficient scorers dropped from 21 to 16 percent. At the same time, the average percentage posting scores at the basic level jumped from 24 to 38 while the below basic percentage climbed from 31 to 42 percent.


For the stronger districts, the fifth grade math results also showed major problems with the Common Core test compared to the old PSSA. The five district average percentage of students scoring at the advanced level plunged from 67 to 36 percent. Much of that decline showed up in the percentage scoring proficient which rose from 21 to 37 percent. However, that was the only non-negative news for the test results as the percentage scoring at both the basic level (up from eight to 20) and the below basic level (up from 4.5 to 10) rose significantly. Numbers like these for basic and below basic have not troubled the strongly performing districts for a long time.


Clearly, the new PSSA math test for fifth grades was much more difficult for both the poorly performing and stronger academic districts than the old PSSA test.


What’s more, the eighth grade scores depict a very dramatic challenge being posed by the Common Core based PSSA exams.


On the language arts test the five poorly performing districts saw their eighth graders average percentage reaching the advanced level slide from 20.7 in 2014 to 3.4 in 2015, nearly eliminating all the high scores. Indeed, none reached the advanced ranking in Wilkinsburg.  At the same time the average percentage of eighth graders scoring proficient slipped from 28.1 to 22.8 and those were undoubtedly the result of students who would have been at the advanced level on the old test moving even further down the achievement scale on the new test. This is a reasonable conclusion because of the fact that the number of students at the basic level jumped from 20.8 percent to 45.7 percent on the new test, almost certainly due to students slipping who would have been advanced or proficient on the old exam. Below basic scorers held fairly steady declining from 30.6 to 28.1 percent.


Meanwhile, the stronger five districts suffered a major shock in terms of the massive drop in the number of students scoring at the advanced level on the new language arts test. The five district average percentage advanced tumbled from 81.3 in 2014 to 35.3 in 2015. Evidently most of the expected advanced students fell into the proficient category as the average percentage in that grouping shot up from 14.5 percent to 52.8 percent on the Common Core test in 2015. The number of basic level scorers also moved up rising from 2.8 percent to 10.9 percent meaning that many expected proficient scorers slipped into the basic group. In something of an anomaly the below basic scorers held fairly steady falling slightly from 1.5 to 1.0 percent.


Clearly, the eighth grade Common Core language arts test difficulty was ratcheted up substantially in difficulty from the old PSSA.


If the eighth grade language arts results were bad news, the math results must be considered truly dreadful. For the five poorly performing districts the average percentage of students reaching the advanced level fell from 22 in 2014 to 1.9 in 2015 on the Common Core based test.  Wilkinsburg and Sto-Rox had no one at the advanced level on the new test. Furthermore, the average percentage reaching proficient also fell sharply from 24.7 in 2014 to 8.4 percent in 2015. At the same time, the averages for these five districts showed the percentage at the basic level held steady in moving from 19 to 20.1 in 2015. The largest change was in the below basic category where the percentage climbed abruptly from 34.2 to 69.6 on the new test. Thus, the percentage basic and below basic jumped from 53 before Common Core to 90 percent after, with proficient and advanced combined dipping to just 10 percent.


And the story is not all that different for the historically strong performing district results. The average percentage scoring at the advanced level plunged from 80.1 in 2014 to 20.7 in 2015 on the new test.  Some of that was captured by a rise in percentage proficient from 12.7 in 2014 to 37.5 on the Common Core based test.  The gap in the drop in advanced and the rise in proficient is captured by the big increase in the percentage scoring basic which rose from 4.2 to 31.2 percent and a smaller but still significant rise in the below basic from 3.1 to 10.6 percent. Thus, from 93 percent advanced/ proficient and 7 percent basic/below basic, these traditionally strong schools are now at 58 percent advanced/proficient and 42 percent basic/below basic in math.  Those scoring results a year ago would have been comparable to some of the poor performers used in our sample.


To put it mildly, the new math test is far harder than the test used through 2014 and has brought even the best schools down several notches on the scoring scale.


This new exam is causing a lot of hand-wringing among administrators, teachers, school boards, and state education officials.  Indeed, what useful information has been learned from this experiment? That top ranked schools that were believed to be sterling academic performers, have been brought down a few pegs? Or that poorly performing schools are truly terrible?  One must ask how much more the traditionally strong districts can do to raise average scores. Their SATs are very good; the students are above state levels by a wide margin and ahead of national levels as well.  And for the poorly performing schools will the new tests that make them look even worse than before do anything to motivate educators to improve beyond what they are already doing? Could the impact be just the opposite of what was hoped for by the Common Core proponents by destroying any hope that most students will reach proficiency under the new standards?


On the other hand, will these results be used to argue that education funding in Pennsylvania must be boosted by 30 or 40 percent to a state average of $20,000 per pupil and districts such as Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg to $30,000 per pupil?


Not a good outcome either way.

Do Sto-Rox Teachers and School Board Really Care?

The Sto-Rox School District recently rejected a charter school proposal.  This prompted a teachers’ union official to declare victory and state that the district “has a school board, superintendent, administration and teachers who care very deeply about the success of students.”  This of course is a predictable comment by teacher unions as they succeed once again in preventing any meaningful school choice-something they have been overwhelmingly successful in doing for years. Nonetheless, the union official’s comment begs the question; if they really cared about their students’ success, wouldn’t they want them to attain high levels of achievement?


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Did Funding Decline Cause Drop in Achievement Scores?

The recent release of 2011-2012 PSSA test results showed a decline in the statewide percentages of student scoring at the proficient or advanced level (-1.4 percent in math and -1.6 percent in reading). In a press release the State Secretary of Education noted the scoring decline was attributable to tightened security in the wake of an investigation of some adults who might have made changes to student answer sheets in previous years.  Not unexpectedly, educational system apologists blamed the decline in PSSA scores on a reduction in educational spending.


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Big Drop in Pittsburgh PSSA Scores: Why?

Last week the state reported that more stringent security measures had been implemented for 2012 PSSA testing as a result of evidence that scores were being enhanced by cheating in some Pennsylvania districts-either by the students or by school personnel. The state report suggested that several schools districts, including Pittsburgh, would likely see test scores drop significantly as a result of the tightened security.


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Pittsburgh School Woes Continue

Layoffs, budget problems, dropping enrollment and now a decline in achievement scores. It seems Pittsburgh City schools cannot catch a break. Even with expenditures above $20,000 per pupil and a scholarship program that promises every graduate with a minimal grade average thousands of dollars to attend college, the District simply cannot move the dial on 11th grade achievement as measured by SAT scores or PSSA results. Hence the graduation rate is stuck and the numbers of school age children in the City continues its decades long slide.

Now comes news that in the 2011-2012 school year, District PSSA scores fell with only 8th graders making any progress. And as we have written about before, there is something peculiar about 8th grade testing, especially in math.

As a result of the drop in PSSA scores and failure to improve graduation rates, Pittsburgh schools failed to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress criteria as set out in the No Child Left Behind program with whatever stigma that implies. The big problem for Pittsburgh schools is the inability to move the scores for 11th graders at most of the City’s schools. The improvement at lower grades is nice but unavailing if 11th graders are unable to perform at anything like expected levels. No wonder the exodus of high school age children is so great.

Opportunity Knocking

The list is out, and it is not pretty or encouraging to be on it. The list in question is that of the lowest achieving schools as measured by performance on the 2010-11 PSSA exam. Ten of the 43 districts in Allegheny County had at least one school on the list. Of the ten high schools in the Pittsburgh Public Schools five made the list: two of those closed their doors at the end of the 2011-12 school year.

What does this mean? Well, under legislation passed in 2012, students living within the boundaries of these schools are eligible, upon meeting income requirements, are eligible tom apply for an Opportunity Scholarship that would allow the student to transfer out of the non-achieving school to a better one. The scholarship can be used for tuition and fees at a participating non-public school or another participating public school district.

As pointed out in an article on the program by an official of the Department of Education, there are schools closing in Pittsburgh and are being combined with other schools and displaced students would be eligible only if the new school was also on the under-performing list. That means high school students from Langley (students moving to Brashear) and Oliver (students moving to Perry) would be in the mix as the new schools also found themselves among the lowest achievers.