COAL TOWNSHIP - Shamokin Area School District met or exceeded state averages in 12 of 21 categories on state standardized testing in 2011-12, according to Times-Shamrock Newspapers annual Grading Our Schools special report.

The district's youngest students performed the best.

Students in third, fourth and fifth grades were average or better in seven of eight categories. The fourth-grade science test scores were the only ones to fall below. (For a list of the average scores, see the "Details" descriptor above the chart on Page A8.)

A significant drop-off in test performance came at sixth grade and above.

Sixth-graders finished below average in math and reading, the two subjects for which they were tested in 2011-12. Seventh-graders made the average in math but missed it in reading.

Testing expands in the eighth and 11th grades to also include reading and science. In both grades, students made the average in math and writing but missed it in reading and science.

District students also missed the state average for the math and reading portions on the SATs.

Tests administered to 11th-graders are obviously more challenging given the difference in coursework compared to younger students. Superintendent James Zack added that the eldest students' tests are also an aggregate of what they've been taught between ninth and 11th grades versus what students learn in any single school year.

"I think if you look across the IU," he said of schools belonging to Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, "11th-grade scores are not going to be what seventh- and eighth-grade scores are."

That's holds true for several of Shamokin Area's neighboring schools. Of eight nearby school districts, only scores in Danville Area and Southern Columbia Area held steady from seventh and eighth grade to eleventh grade. Line Mountain actually improved. Milton Area, Shikellamy, Warrior Run and North Schuylkill either experienced a drop or remained the same with below-average scores to begin with.

District met AYP

The state averages referenced above are different from Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as judged by state standardized testing, the PSSAs. AYP shows the percentage of a school's or school district's students who are deemed to be proficient or above in any one subject.

Shamokin Area as a school district met AYP in 2011-12, the latest statistics available from state Department of Education. Its elementary and middle schools had as well.

For the second year running, the high school failed to do so, and it's now in School Improvement I status by the state. It's likely AYP won't come in 2012-13, either. That's because the benchmarks designated for student proficiency in mathematics, reading and writing are nearing the 100 percent ceiling. As the goals have climbed higher, the benchmarks have reached the point that many school officials statewide have warned about: unrealistic expectations.

In 2011-12, the goals for all schools were 81 percent for reading and 78 percent for math. Those levels soared to 91 percent and 89 percent, respectively, in 2012-13, results for which are not yet publicly available.

Just 60 percent of the state's 500 school districts reached AYP in 2011-12. That number was even lower for individual schools, with less than half, 48 percent, making the grade.

Elementary off 'warning'

Shamokin Area Elementary School met AYP in all categories in both academic performance and test participation, doing well enough to have the warning tag it was given in 2010-11 lifted. The school's students didn't meet the benchmarks in each category; however, they improved enough to satisfy improvement requirements that came with the warning designation.

The middle school met AYP in all categories as well. While it wasn't on warning status but like the elementary, it reached AYP using similar growth model measurements that fall below the benchmarks but satisfy other performance measures.

Plan to improve

The high school missed academic performance across the board, including its economically disadvantaged students - a subgroup that at nearly 60 percent is a majority at the school. It was a warning school after 2010-11 and is now considered on School Improvement I. A plan to improve PSSA test scores has since been submitted to the state.

"We'll have 500 districts on it at some point," Zack said of School Improvement I, pointing to the 100 percent benchmark set for 2014.

Bill Callahan, assistant high school principal, and Ruby Michetti, curriculum coordinator, each said the math scores were better than what they appear to be.

"I think our math scores in the high school have been fine over the years. Our middle school has done really well. I think overall our teachers and kids do an excellent job," Callahan said.