MOUNT CARMEL - Mount Carmel Area School District didn't meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2011-12 in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests and is in warning status as determined by the state Department of Education.

The junior high school did achieve AYP, but the high school failed by only reaching 9 out of 15 categories, failing every category in academic performance for reading and math. The elementary school also failed to achieve AYP by reaching 16 of 17, failing only in math for Individualized Education Program-special education.

While administrators and teachers continue to strive to improve state standardized test results, they say many factors, such as demographics, economics and budgetary constraints, play a role in not reaching AYP.

Superintendent Bernie Stellar and high school principal and curriculum coordinator Lisa Varano commended teachers for preparing students well for the PSSAs, but said reaching 100 percent achievement at every grade level, a requirement by 2014 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, is unrealistic.

Still, Varano said the district in the new school year plans to implement an activity period at the end of the school day two days per week for approximately 30 minutes each to allow students more time to prepare for PSSAs and do other school work.

"The goals of the activity period are remediation (tutoring) and standardized test preparation," she said "We may include the elementary school in the activity period in the future."

Varano said the district currently offers after-school tutoring in various subject areas, but the in-school activity period will provide help to students who have jobs after school or are involved in sports or other extracurricular activities.

"Our goal here at Mount Carmel Area is to make sure every student succeeds, but attaining 100 percent achievement within the district isn't realistic. Every school district in the state is held to the same standard even though each district is different," she said.

A school district's economy, the number of low-income, special education and transient students, costs per pupil and other budgetary constraints are all factors, Varano said. Almost 60 percent of MCA's students are considered low-income, the 55th highest percentage of the state's 500 public school districts.

"The state is using one test in one way to grade the districts overall, which goes against everything we have been taught about educating students who have different learning capabilities," Varano said.

8 of 21 averages

Mount Carmel Area only met or exceeded eight out of 21 state averages for PSSA testing and SAT scores. The district met or exceeded the state average in math and reading in third grade; math, reading and science in fourth grade, and math in fifth, sixth and seventh grades, but failed to meet or exceed the state average in reading and writing in fifth grade; reading in sixth and seventh grades, and math, reading, science and writing in eighth and 11th grades. (See the bubble chart, page A8.)

Varano believes some of the scores don't fairly represent the academic success of the district and its students. She pointed out that the 2013 graduating class made AYP as seventh- and eighth-graders, but didn't make it as juniors. She also said some students who perform well in the classroom academically just don't do well on tests.

Varano said most students complete their state testing in their junior year in preparation for college, and by the time their senior year rolls around, some don't possess motivation to study as hard.

With the exception of fifth-graders, she said elementary school students have traditionally done well on the PSSAs. Varano said for some reason, fifth-graders throughout the state tend to struggle with the standardized tests, which start in third grade.

Enter the Keystones

The PSSAs will continue to be taken by students in grades three through eight, but the Keystone Exams replaced PSSAs for juniors this past school year.

PSSA results will soon be used as part of an evaluation of both teachers and administrators, and the Keystone Exams will eventually count toward student graduation. The Keystones are end-of-course tests taken by high school students upon completion of certain core subjects, including biology, algebra I and English literature.

"This year was a transition year for us with the Keystones because we had hundreds of students take them as early as eighth grade," Varano said. "If they pass them in eighth grade, they can bank the scores (carry them over) for their junior year and successfully complete the exam that enables them to graduate."

Also, if they fail the Keystone Exams, students can take them until they pass.

She said students at MCA start taking algebra I in eighth grade and biology in ninth grade. English literature is first offered in 10th grade.

Stellar doesn't foresee standardized tests going away anytime soon, citing the importance of accountability in education.

"The Keystone Exams are a positive step in the area of accountability because now the students themselves have a graduation requirement to motivate them to do well on the exams," he said.

However, he added, "unrealistic levels of achievement only serve as a detriment to a school's efforts to effectively educate all learners."

Stellar said the school board took a major step at its meeting Thursday night to help the district meet AYP in the future by hiring a junior high school principal, six special education teachers and several other instructors.