Grading Our Schools Local districts far apart on state testing success
With the deadline looming for Pennsylvania schools to be 100 percent proficient in PSSA reading and math scores, some local districts are significantly closer to achieving that goal than others.
Federally mandated by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, the proficiency deadline - in place to help school districts meet national academic standards - is 2014.
Each year, students from five local school districts - Southern Columbia Area, Line Mountain, Mount Carmel Area, Shamokin Area and North Schuylkill - join 496 others in the commonwealth in taking the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) test.
The following information has been obtained from Times-Shamrock Newspapers' annual analysis of academic performance for the 2007-08 school year. (Although the 2008-09 PSSA tests have been taken, those details have yet to be released.)
While none of the five area public schools in The News-Item's coverage area has yet met 100 percent proficiency standards, some are already close.
For instance, Southern Columbia met or surpassed the state average in 15 of 17 PSSA testing subjects for the second year in a row, falling short only in third-grade reading and eighth-grade writing.
Line Mountain saw an impressive improvement from 2006-07 testing, when it was proficient in nine test subjects. In 2007-08, the district met or surpassed state averages in 12 subjects, falling short in seventh- and 11th-grade reading, eighth- and 11th-grade math and fifth-grade writing.
Mount Carmel Area and North Schuylkill school districts both met or surpassed the state average in nine categories for 2007-08. Shamokin Area was proficient in five of 17 categories.
(For more details on PSSA results, see the chart on Page A7.)
NCLB requires states set gradually increasing proficiency levels in order to reach the mandatory goal. Third through eighth grade and 11th grade are tested annually in math and reading. Fifth, eighth and 11th grades are also tested in writing.
Michael Race, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), said school districts that have a higher number of economically disadvantaged students may perform worse on assessment tests. Low-income students tend to start behind or fall behind their peers academically for a variety of reasons, ranging from a lack of support at home to poor nutrition, Race said.
The correlation between lower test scores and the percentage of low-income students seems to apply to Shamokin Area, which has the most economically disadvantaged students locally. Ranked the 28th poorest district in the state, 60.5 percent of Shamokin's students come from low-income families.
The number of low-income students is determined by how many students within the district receive free or reduced lunches.
Numbers have shown that schools with the least amount of financial resources have the largest number of students falling below proficiency levels.
"There is a clear correlation between adequate school funding and academic performance," Race said.
According to Race, a recent study has shown schools in Pennsylvania have been underfunded by $2 million dollars. After that finding, Gov. Ed Rendell implemented a six-year program to increase the basic education subsidy to bridge the gap in the poorer school districts, Race said.
This program began in the 2008-09 school year and will continue until that gap is closed, Race said.
Attendance rates, along with graduation rates, are factors in a school meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements, said Race.
The state requires students attend school 90 percent of the time, enabling the state to adequately gather numbers for testing the entire student body at a school district, thus providing an accurate reflection of the school's performance.
SCA had the best attendance rate of the five area schools in 2007-08.
With students attending school 96.36 percent of the time, Southern ranks 51st in the state. North Schuylkill follows Southern locally with a 95.8 percent attendance rate. Line Mountain students attended school 95.03 percent of the time, while MCA students attended school 94.81 percent of the time. Shamokin Area students attended school 92.58 percent of the time, ranking 487th of 501 school districts in the state.
(See separate story for more on Southern's success.)
MCA's grade 5
While fifth-grade reading scores at Southern Columbia and Line Mountain passed the state average, the numbers are below those scored by students at Mount Carmel Area Elementary, where 82.5 percent met the state average.
Since fifth grade can be a transitional year for students, MCA teachers and administrators have figured out how to create a strong program and achieve success on PSSA tests, said Superintendent Cheryl Latorre, who said teachers and administrators have been aggressively working with the curriculum coordinator on the process.
"Our fifth grade is very strong," Latorre said. "The teachers really push that grade level."
She said everything from puberty to feelings of independence hit in fifth grade.
"This is a critical year," she said. "Even more important than elementary school because study skills are set."
Latorre said strong teachers are strategically placed at this grade level to teach students how to study and prepare for testing.
'Reason to celebrate'
Line Mountain has continually improved its scores each year. In 2006-07, the district met the state average in nine of 17 categories. It succeeded in three more categories in the 2007-08 school year, achieving the state average in 12 of 17 categories.
Dave Campbell, district superintendent, credits the district's commitment to small class sizes. He said the board of directors is also committed to continuing education for teachers to make sure the most current and best practices in education are followed.
Since reading scores were weaker than math scores, administration focused on improving reading skills by hiring a reading specialist and implementing programs designed for early intervention and continued study to improve reading skills.
Campbell said grant money has funded several tutoring programs. He also recognized the importance of communication and cooperation among the district administrators, board of directors, teachers, parents and students. He said it is with this symmetry that success can be realized.
"It helps to have great teachers, great students and great families who want their kids to learn," Campbell said.
Campbell pointed out the importance of recognizing students who test below the state average. He said when they improve their scores, "that's reason to celebrate."