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Monday, November 14, 2011

Making the Grade: Pittsburgh schools improving, advocacy group says

Posted By on Mon, Nov 14, 2011 at 4:35 PM

Citing higher test scores for black students, a local education watchdog group announced today that the stubborn racial-achievement gap at the Pittsburgh Public Schools is narrowing.

A+ Schools announced the good news during a press conference this morning, when the Hill District-based nonprofit unveiled its Seventh Annual Report to the Community on Public School Progress in Pittsburgh. The 125-page report, which provides an in-depth look at student achievement within individual schools and which tracks improvement compared to previous years, reveals a number of positive trends. In addition to narrowing the achievement gap between black and white students, the city district also saw an increase in "Promise-ready" students, as well as a rise in the district's graduation rate.

"We are seeing a lot of progress," Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, announced at a press conference in the Hill District this morning. "There's plenty to be proud of in the Pittsburgh Public Schools."

click to enlarge Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools - PHOTO BY CHRIS YOUNG

The racial-achievement gap has long plagued school districts across the country, including Pittsburgh. But over the last four years, according to A+ Schools, the disparity between test scores for whites and blacks in the Pittsburgh Public Schools has been steadily decreasing.

In 2008, for instance, the gap between black and white students scoring proficient or advanced in reading on state tests stood at 34.9 percent. By 2011, however, that gap has narrowed to 30.6 percent. The achievement gap in math also narrowed over the same four-year period, from 28.5 percent in 2008 to 27.2 percent in 2011.

"We are pleased to see the achievement gap beginning to be closed," said Sala Udin, chairman of the board of A+ Schools. "We're beginning to make some movement."

Here are some positive highlights from the 2010-2011 report:

  • All but one district grade level made gains in reading and math greater than the state's academic gains in those two subjects. The exception was 11th-grade math, which declined for the second year in a row.
  • 59 percent of district seniors earned grade point averages that qualified them for the Promise scholarship, an increase of 4 percentage points from the previous year.
  • The district's graduation rate in 2011 (89.2 percent) increased by 6.8 percentage points from 2010.
  • Nearly 65 percent of the district's seniors took the SAT exam, an increase of 4.2 percent points.

"It's important for us to celebrate the gains we've made," said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. "But we know our work isn't done."

Indeed, Harris pointed out during her presentation that there are still causes for concern when it comes to the district's racial divide, especially at the high school level. For example, she said, in all eight of the city's high schools, 60 percent of white seniors were eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program. But in just two high schools were 60 percent of black students eligible for the academic scholarship.

While Harris noted that the district's high schools need to improve, her presentation didn't highlight any specific issues. But leafing through the high school section of the report, it's easy to see there are some serious problems.

Take Westinghouse High School, for instance. In 2011, 0 percent of its 11th-grade students scored proficient or advanced in science (the district average was 22.5 percent), while just 6.9 percent scored the same in math (the district average was 47.5 percent). Also, just 25 percent of Westinghouse seniors were eligible for a Promise scholarship, nearly 35 percentage points below the district average.

The good news is that the district is in the midst of reforming Westinghouse. The bad news, however, is that relaunching it as a 6-12 school with single-gender classes has proven to be a disaster.

While the mood at today's press conference was upbeat, it's uncertain how the district will be able to build upon its successes as it tackles a $38 million budget shortfall. On Nov. 7, Superintendent Linda Lane proposed cutting 300 teaching positions next year, the latest in a long line of belt-tightening measures introduced in recent months.

"The Pittsburgh Public Schools is facing a daunting challenge to keep making academic progress with less resources," Harris said.

We'll have to wait until next year's report to see if they succeed.

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