State ratings website off to poor start
By Megan Harris
Published: Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 12:51 a.m.
School leaders say state education officials botched the release of what should have been the department's crowning achievement — the latest piece of a new accountability system designed to replace No Child Left Behind.
Acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq delayed the debut of a new school performance website when more than 20 percent of the state's 3,000 schools complained data were incorrect or incomplete and could make schools look bad.
The site of the School Performance Profile, initially set to appear Monday, went active Friday afternoon with partial results.
A dialog box tells visitors that erroneous information will be updated as soon as possible.
“What good does that do, though?” asked Jim Buckheit, executive director for the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, who lobbied the state to postpone the site's release until all data could be added and verified.
Education Department spokesman Tim Eller reported Monday that 626 schools asked to be excluded and 1,444 schools requested minor corrections.
For schools with missing data or incomplete scores, the state will issue new scores in January, he said.
“We're frustrated by the lack of communication, clarity and the timeframe we were given to approve the data they submitted on our behalf,” Buckheit said. “To knowingly release the new system with errors is a totally inappropriate way to represent our schools.”
Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, praised the state for its responsiveness but said many Allegheny County superintendents still were waiting for corrections they requested weeks ago.
“I understand this is very complex and it takes time to pull all the data from these multiple sources and get it online, but that's why we should've delayed,” Hippert said. “Why push to get it out there? The public will see these scores and draw conclusions, despite the disclaimers.”
Minutes after the site went live, Dumaresq said, everything available online was correct, blaming the incomplete launch on discrepancies in how educators submitted Keystone Exams statewide.
Superintendents, including dozens in Western Pennsylvania, were allowed to ask the state to suppress data until corrections can be made.
Just 2 local districts
In the Alle-Kiski Valley, for example, high school academic performance information is available for only two of the 15 local school districts.
“We felt holding the whole thing to wait for one (piece of data, the Keystone exams) is probably not in our best interest,” Dumaresq said.
The system that supports the site is not flawed and eventually will give a reliable portrait of school performance, she said.
“We'll have to see how that plays out,” said David Broderic, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.
Broderic argued that the profiles rely too heavily on standardized testing — a combined 90 percent, including base scores, growth over time and minority achievement.
In development for more than three years, School Performance Profile features a number grade for every school — from 0 to 100, or up to 107 with extra credit.
Districts don't receive scores as a whole.
Officials based scores on the results of statewide Keystone and end-of-course exams, attendance, graduation rates and student growth from year to year as part of the new School Performance Profile, which replaces the Adequate Yearly Progress goals outlined in No Child Left Behind.
Alle-Kiski Valley administrators react
Local administrators had mixed feelings on the reliability and usefulness of the new accountability website.
“The School Performance Profile site is a basic repackaging of what was already there for schools and parents to see,” said Highlands Superintendent Michael Bjalobok. “But it is not going to be a tool that truly improves a school or its students' learning.”
Bjalobok said Highlands is trying to do that through the Northwest Evaluation Association's Measures of Academic Progress testing program. It uses test scores to make a learning plan based on an individual student's strengths and weaknesses.
“This is what we believe is going to impact the student achievement at Highlands — not a number and a website,” Bjalobok said. “It is nice for parents, but it isn't going to guide our instruction.”
“I think it does include some items that weren't looked at before,” said Larry Robb, program director at Freeport Area School District. “I think we need time to work through it and get used to what the expectations are.”
Robb said he hasn't formed an opinion about the new accountability system, but he likes some aspects compared to the old assessment method.
Previously, poor performance of a single subgroup such as special education or low-income students could cause a school to miss the mark despite good scores by students overall.
That no longer is the case, because the state is focusing on growth from year to year and closing the achievement gap.
Angelo Furiga, Deer Lakes' director of curriculum, technology and data, indicated that once the kinks are worked out, the site will be as accurate a reflection of a school's performance as it can be.
“It measures the standards, at least it appears to at this point,” he said. “As far as the new system, I do like the way it looks at academic progress over time.”
“The more familiar I am with the School Performance Profile, the more that I see various forms of data that have been summarized for us,” said Peggy DiNinno, superintendant of Riverview School District. “That data will allow us to examine our schools from different perspectives rather just one test score.
“Quite frankly, we plan to use our own analysis of our PSSA scores along with the various data sources that are provided in the school performance profile to ... (customize) educational programs for each of the children,” DiNinno said. “What it comes down to is how you can get down to the specific needs of the kids.”
“I think it is a good start,” Allegheny Valley Superintendent Cheryl Griffith said. “It is certainly more detailed than the general report cards that were published by the states in the past. And it communicates to the stakeholders at large the importance of high standards in learning for all students.”
But she said not having the high school and junior high results published due to the testing errors was disappointing.
Even with the glitches of releasing information, “this is a much more equitable and robust way to access school district performances,” said Kiski Area Assistant Superintendent Scott Koter.
How they scored
Although the accuracy and completeness of the school data have been questioned, district officials are beginning to analyze how their schools performed.
New Kensington-Arnold Superintendent John Pallone readily admits he is not a fan of standardized testing.
He said the recent state assessments can paint a deceiving picture of what a district is accomplishing.
“When I look at our data, what I can tell you is that our ‘basic' and ‘below basic' students are advancing at the level expected, or above, for school performance,” Pallone said. “But when you look at the average of (all) students, it looks like as a district we are not advancing.
“The devil is in the detail of the data.”
Pallone said the district will be working to not only bring up test scores for lower-performing students, but making sure even gifted students are showing advancement from year to year.
“Overall, we're very pleased with the scores,” said Robb at Freeport Area. “Of course there are areas you're going to examine very closely. We get our PSSA and Keystone scores early in the summer, and we've been through our analysis before the release of the School Performance Profiles.”
Each year, schools go through an improvement plan that focuses on areas of concern, Robb said.
The district already has adjusted its high school curriculum to require biology for all 10th-graders, so students are prepared for the Keystone biology exam, he said.
Furiga at Deer Lakes said the percentage of students who scored proficient or better at Curtisville and East Union elementary schools is consistent with prior years — about 85 percent for math and between 75 and 80 percent for reading.
“We're not completely happy with the scores, but there are some high points,” Furiga said. “And we're going to be addressing those (problem areas) throughout the year.”
Apollo-Ridge School District was one of the few local high schools displaying an overall performance score, but that could change with the Keystone date in January, Superintendent Matt Curci said.
The high school posted a score of about 74, the middle school an 85 and the elementary school an 82.
“It indicates that we have made strides,” Curci said.
Leechburg Area will be working to improve test scores, especially at the district's only elementary school, David Leech Elementary, which had below-average reading scores, according to Matthew Kruluts, principal for kindergarten through 12th grade.
“It looks like the third-graders pulled down the other grades,” Kruluts said. “It was the first time that these third-graders took the PSSAs.
“I'll share the information with the teachers and see what we are doing in reading and work to get that improved.”
The math and writing scores were “OK,” according to Kruluts.
“They weren't above average, and we'll continue to work on that as well.”
Given the high rankings for most Kiski Area elementary schools, officials are “pleased and proud,” said Koter, who oversees curriculum for the district.
“I am so pleased with all of our buildings,” he said. “Districtwide, there is evidence that we are exceeding the state standard for achievement and growth.”
Staff writers Chuck Biedka, Liz Hayes, Mary Ann Thomas, Jodi Weigand, Tom Yerace, Christopher Buckley, Pat Cloonan, Rachel Farkus, Megan Guza, Daveen Rae Kurutz, Tawnya Panizzi, Tory Parrish, Brad Pederson and Kate Wilcox contributed to this report. Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-3885815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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