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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

City schools make headway in test scores

Posted By on Wed, Aug 10, 2011 at 7:08 PM

Last week, Pittsburgh school officials delivered the bad news: The district plans to close seven city schools to help reduce a projected $68 million deficit. Today, however, came some good news.

Superintendent Linda Lane smiled proudly during a press conference this morning as she announced the district's mostly positive 2011 state test results.

"We feel good about this report," Lane told an audience filled with media, administrators and school principals during a press conference held today at the district's Professional Development Center, located in the West End. "This is a good-news story for the most part."

Using a PowerPoint presentation, Lane walked the audience through the preliminary results of the 2011 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, a yearly, state-mandated exam taken by students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 that tests students in subjects including reading and math. She began by noting that the percentage of Pittsburgh students scoring "proficient" or "advanced" in reading increased in all but one grade level (6th) from 2010 to 2011. Similarly, the percentage of district students scoring the same in math increased in five of the seven grade levels.

As a result, Lane's presentation pointed out, the percentage of students scoring "below basic," a designation signifying less-than-average performance, decreased in every grade level for reading and all but one grade level (3rd) in math.

Here are some other test-result highlights by grade level:

  • The percentage of 3rd-graders scoring proficient or advanced in reading (63.1 percent) increased by 3.5 percentage points from 2010, and by 4.1 percentage points since 2007.
  • In contrast to the gains made in other grade levels, the percentage of 6th-grade students scoring at least proficient in reading decreased by 1.4 percentage points from 2010. But that percentage (51.5 percent) represents a 5.6-point increase since 2007.
  • Reading proficiency for 8th-graders increased only slightly, from 70.9 percent in 2010 to 71.6 percent in 2011. However, that's an increase of 13.8 percentage points since 2007.
  • Reading proficiency in grade 11 (56 percent) increased by 5 percentage points from last year.
  • The percentage of 3rd-grade students scoring at least proficient in math decreased slightly, from 73.9 percent in 2010 to 73.5 percent in 2011.
  • The percentage of 5th-graders scoring at least proficient in math increased by 4.9 percentage points, from 61.1 percent last year to 66 percent this year. That represents an 8.3 percentage point increase since 2007.
  • Repeating the bad news for 6th grade, however, scores show that the percentage of 6th-graders scoring proficient or advanced in math decreased slightly (0.9 percentage points) from 2010.

Although students in 11th grade showed slight gains in reading and math, Lane acknowledged that the district has a long way to go to improve test scores at the high-school level. After all, more than one-third of the district's 11th-graders are still scoring below basic in math.

"Eleventh grade has been our toughest nut to crack," said Lane. "Eleventh grade is not where we'd like it to be, but we did see some movement."

What about the pesky achievement gap between the district's black and white students? The district appears to be making at least some progress in that area. The disparity in scores between black and white students in reading decreased by 1 percentage point from 2010 to 2011. The gap, which now stands at 27.7 points, stood at 32.3 in 2007.

The racial-achievement gap in math, meanwhile, also decreased by 1 percentage point since last year. The gap for that subject is now 25.9 percentage points, down from 31.1 points in 2007.

Lane ended her presentation by praising the success at Arsenal K-5 and Perry High School, both of which saw significant achievement gains in both reading and math. The percentage of students at Arsenal who scored at least proficient increased from 35.4 percent in 2010 to 53.6 percent in 2011. The school also saw a 9.4 percentage-point increase in math-proficiency scores since last year.

Perry students too showed much-improved scores. The percentage of students at the school who scored at least proficient in reading increased from 44.9 percent in 2010 to 52.4 percent in 2011, an increase of 7.5 percentage points.

The district, however, did not release scores for any other individual schools. (Officials said they would be released during an Education Committee meeting next Monday.) During a question-and-answer session with reporters after the meeting, I asked Lane if there were any schools whose scores dropped since last year.

She responded by saying that the district have targeted schools that need to improve. "They'll get more attention," she said. In particular, she said Westinghouse suffered from "low achievement."

It's another setback for Westinghouse, which has been the site of a controversial district experiment in single-sex education.

District officials said they won't learn until next month whether the district made Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.

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