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Keystone exam code confusion delays Penn Hills results

| Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Confusion over Keystone exam coding means that Penn Hills parents will have to wait until 2014 to find out how their high-school and middle-school students scored on the newly-instituted Pennsylvania School Performance Profile.

Thousands of students, proctors and administrators statewide failed to check the correct box that would indicate whether a student took the test for course credit or to meet federal requirements.

“It's not that our data was incorrect, but things were coded in different ways,” said Renel Williams, director of teaching, learning and assessment for the Penn Hills School District.

Superintendent Thomas Washington said instructions from the state on how to code tests were confusing.

“When the state put this out, the directions said if you put a preprinted label on your (testing) book, you didn't need to bubble certain things. There were confusing instructions about what needed to be coded on the books. Some districts coded, some didn't.”

Williams said even when districts called state officials for clarification, “some districts were told to go ahead and do it, and some weren't.”

The result was the suppression of scores for a large number of Pennsylvania high schools and middle schools, including both Penn Hills Senior High and Linton Middle schools.

“There was a bubble that should have said, ‘Year-End Exam,' but the state gave out conflicting directions on whether that should or should not have been bubbled,” Williams said.

Acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq said the state shares the blame for those errors by failing to more clearly outline how to fill out test forms.

School Performance Profiles, the model approved to replace Adequate Yearly Progress goals mandated by No Child Left Behind, were delayed twice as state officials struggled to make corrections and verify basic, building-specific data. Pending those changes, more than 20 percent of the state's 3,000 schools requested that their data and test scores remain suppressed.

The district's elementary schools — Forbes, Penn Hebron and Washington — all scored around 70, meaning that the defined achievement gap at the lower grade levels is roughly 30 percent. District officials' goal is to cut the gap to 15 percent over the next six years. As long as that mark is met, school districts are not subject to penalties for inconsistent progress from year to year.

Neither Washington nor Williams were satisfied with the marks which, excluding the 95 Allegheny County schools whose data was suppressed, place the district in the bottom third of the county.

“We want scores to be better,” Washington said. “Although 70 represents that you're ‘in the green,' certainly we want them to be higher, and obviously our expectations are higher.”

To that end, the district has begun implementing Common Core curriculum across the district this year, Williams said.

“We're also providing building-level focus,” she said. “This month, for example, the high school is giving their building report. They'll talk about where their focus is and how we're making an effort not to overwhelm students with what we're doing.”

Washington said data for Linton and the high school will be sorted out and presented sometime after January.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com. Staff writer Megan Harris contributed to this report.

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