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More schools likely to fall short of state achievement standards

With students set to take Pennsylvania System of Student Assessment exams this week, educators warned that the number of schools failing to meet tougher math and reading standards likely will rise, and the burden to fix problems will lie largely with school districts.

State officials use the PSSA as a benchmark to determine which schools or districts need to improve, and they wield considerable power to make changes when students don't make the academic progress mandated by federal law. Education Department officials will review policies regarding the assessment test in coming months, spokesman Steve Weitzman said.

"We're also keeping a close eye on what's happening to the (No Child Left Behind) law at the federal level, where some frank and earnest discussions are now going on about changing the underlying law that's the basis for (adequate yearly progress) measurements," he said.

Last year, nearly 18 percent of Pennsylvania schools failed to meet state standards under No Child Left Behind. That number likely will rise this year, when standards get tougher for the first time since 2008. At least 67 percent of students must score at or above grade level in math, up from 56 percent. In reading, the target is 72 percent, up from 63 percent.

The standards continue to gradually increase each year until 2014, when the law says 100 percent of students should be at or above grade level in reading and math. State officials offer schools guidance, but district officials must carry out improvement plans.

Tim Gabauer, McKeesport Area School District superintendent, said educators put much thought into the plans they develop to improve students' test scores.

"We take it very seriously," said Gabauer, whose district scored higher on the PSSA for four consecutive years but has not met state standards. "Once we realize there are some things we need to do to see those scores rise, we make sure that is done."

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress last week that 82 percent of America's schools this year could fail to meet adequate yearly progress. He urged Congress to approve President Obama's blueprint for reforming the law, which includes rewarding high-poverty schools and districts that improve student achievement, and requiring states to identify and intervene in persistently under-performing schools.

Nate Benefield, director of policy research for the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg policy group, said schools are in a precarious position.

"It's unrealistic to have schools barely hanging on and then expect them all of a sudden to make AYP," said Benefield, who thinks the state needs to do more to help students in failing schools. "We should treat districts like charters, which can have their charters revoked, or completely reconstitute them."

Pittsburgh Public Schools is using federal money to turn around its failing schools. Officials are addressing curriculum changes, student remediation, teacher training and extended day and year programs -- interventions the state recommends but doesn't monitor.

New Kensington-Arnold School District Superintendent George Batterson worries that education funding cuts proposed last week by Gov. Tom Corbett could hinder districts' abilities to meet achievement targets. Although his district made AYP last year, its scores must increase to do so again.

"If we don't make (adequate yearly progress), that's a problem, but our district has been doing well lately, thanks to all the interventions we're doing," he said. "The state is putting us in an incredibly difficult position because we're going to have to cut staff, which is going to endanger the progress we've made."

School officials say it's frustrating to implement reforms and see improvement, only to have a school labeled as failing because progress isn't swift or substantial enough to meet government standards.

"I'm not discounting the importance of knowing where students are and holding them to high standards and working hard with them to do those basic skills, but let's not sacrifice exciting, innovative strategies in the classroom that make them want to learn," said Jim Manley, acting Superintendent of Sto-Rox School District.

Additional Information:

About the test

The Pennsylvania System of Student Assessment tests students' reading and math skills in grades three through eight and 11.

This year's goal is that at least 67 percent of the tested students score 'proficient' or higher on the math test assessment and at least 72 percent score 'proficient' or higher on reading. Those levels are up from 2010.

To achieve 'adequate yearly progress,' districts must meet goals for graduation rate and test participation.

To find out how your school fared on the 2009-10 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, go to http://paayp.emetric.net/

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