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Penn Hills on 'Warning' status; new high-school test on the horizon

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 9:30 p.m.

The Penn Hills School District is on “Warning” status following the results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, released Sept. 21, meaning the district has not made adequate yearly progress, but has another year to do so.

Only Forbes Elementary School met all of its targets for adequate yearly progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind legislation.

In the eyes of district superintendent Thomas Washington and secondary education director Bill McClarnon, however, the PSSAs are just a small slice of the district-evaluation pie.

“I think the PSSA is a piece of the data, not the end-all, be-all,” Washington said. “It would be like going to the doctor, and the doctor only takes your blood pressure to determine your overall health.”

Washington was critical of the “cut-score” element of the PSSAs: “They're just choosing a number and saying, ‘This is what will make you good.'”

As an example, Washington referenced the early 2000s, when PSSA math proficiency targets were at 35 percent.

“We had 38 percent of kids test proficient in math, and we made AYP,” he said. “This year, the math target is 78 percent. We have 65 percent of students testing proficient, so even though 30 percent more of our students are proficient, we're not making AYP.”

Penn Hebron and Washington elementary schools are also on “Warning” status, although Penn Hebron students met nine of 10 academic performance targets, an improvement over 2011.

Students at Washington Elementary did make AYP last year, and took a step backward, meeting six of eight targets.

Linton Middle School and Penn Hills Senior High School, whose PSSA performance was discussed at the Penn Hills School Board's August meeting, are in their fifth and sixth years of “Corrective Action II” status, respectively, meaning that both are subject to governance changes including reconstitution, chartering or even privatization.

Washington said that while those discussions provide a chance for parents and board members to vent their frustration, they do not address the root causes of the district's problems, which he said will take a longer timeline to uncover and address.

“We want to make changes that are sustainable, and that takes time,” Washington said. “If I start working out today, I'm not going to look good tomorrow.”

All but two student subgroups in the district failed to meet the 2012 goal of 78 percent proficiency in mathematics, and none of the groups met the 81 percent proficiency target for reading.

The district as a whole has taken a step backward after making AYP in 2011. After making AYP annually from 2003 to 2006, the district has swung back and forth between meeting annual targets and going back on “Warning” status.

For their part, Washington and McClarnon are looking forward to Pennsylvania's move toward a new standardized test at the high-school level, the Keystones. PSSA re-tests, taken this October, will be the last high-school PSSAs administered by the district.

McClarnon said the Keystones simply make more sense.

“They're essentially an end-of-subject exam,” he said.

One major flaw of the PSSAs, he said, is that they do not account for students at the lower end of the district's math track.

“You have a student who is in pre-algebra in ninth grade,” McClarnon said. “And a significant portion of their PSSA math test is algebraic concepts. That student doesn't have the knowledge yet that they need to succeed.”

On top of that, there is no accountability component tied to the PSSAs for students. PSSA scores do not affect a student's ability to graduate, and while they do appear on college transcripts, students have the option to remove them.

Washington said while he understands the spirit of what No Child Left Behind legislation and the PSSAs were attempting, he doesn't believe the test is truly an educational or evaluation-oriented tool.

“It was never meant for achievement,” he said. “It was used for political purposes.”

Washington continued to emphasize the idea that the old model of public education is not suited for modern times.

“We live in a customized world now,” he said. “If you and I pull out our phones, I have a bunch of apps, and you have a bunch of different ones, we have our individual music preferences on there … so the question is how do we use technology and instruction to customize learning?

“This is a challenging time (for educators), but it's also an exciting time,” he said. “Some of the challenges represent opportunities for us to reinvent ourselves as a district.”

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com.

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