Pittsburgh schools watchdog group's report details further decline
By Bill Zlatos
Published: Monday, November 12, 2012, 11:04 a.m.
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013
A group that monitors Pittsburgh Public Schools said the district regressed academically in 2012, a trend school officials say could be linked to its financial crisis.
Hill District-based A+ Schools said its reviews of state test scores and other information show the graduation rate fell and the achievement gap between white and black students widened in the latest numbers, but the reason for the declines remains cloudy.
“This is the first time we had to deliver so much bad news,” Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, said at a news conference on Monday at The Hill House.
The organization, with the support of foundations and civic groups interested in city schools, issues several reports annually on progress in the district. Its “Eighth Annual Report to the Community on Public School Progress in Pittsburgh” stated, in part:
• The gap between white students in the state and black students in the district on state achievement tests widened to 31.9 percentage points in reading and 30.9 percentage points in math, an increase of 1.3 and 3.6 percentage points, respectively. In reading, 78.9 percent of white students statewide scored at the advanced or proficient levels, compared with 47 percent of black students in the district. In math, 82 percent of white students statewide scored at the advanced or proficient levels, compared with 51.1 percent of black students in the district. It was unclear why the report compared black students in the district with white students statewide.
• The district's graduation rate declined to 68.5 percent in 2012 from 70 percent in 2011.
• Nearly 58 percent of all seniors in the district had a grade-point average of at least 2.5, making them eligible in terms of grades for the Pittsburgh Promise, a $10,000-a-year scholarship program for college or training school. That's a decrease of 1 percentage point from the previous year.
Superintendent Linda Lane said the district's financial problems might have distracted some teachers who worried they could be furloughed; the district originally said it could furlough as many as 450 district employees, but in July it sent notices to 270 staff, including 190 teachers.
Also, the district dropped the Foresight test after the state quit paying for it; it helped teachers know how well their students were doing and where children needed extra help.
Board member Regina Holley was not taking excuses.
“We've spent millions of dollars of district money, and we don't seem to be making any headway,” she said.
Holley called for the district to use different contractors and activities to boost achievement. The district's budget this year is $522 million.
Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and a board member of A+ Schools, would not point at a single cause of the problem.
“Yes, I put some blame on Pittsburgh Public Schools, and yes, some of the blame goes back to the parents and society as well,” Bush said. “We have to make education a priority.”
Harris called Lane's explanation for the academic slide “plausible” but added, “I don't know. I don't think they know.”
Lane also said teachers might have withheld encouraging words for students during the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests because they mistakenly feared that could violate the state's testing rules.
In September, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said an effort to curb cheating lowered student performance on the 2011-12 PSSA scores statewide.
Compared with 2010-11 results, the percentage of proficient or advanced students statewide declined by 1.4 points in math and 1.6 points in reading.
City schools did not meet the standard for adequate yearly progress for 2011-12 based on PSSA scores.
The district is one of nine the Department of Education is investigating for PSSA irregularities, such as suspicious erasure marks, answers that did not match the student's written computation and instances in which teachers returned the test to students so they could answer questions they initially had left blank.
The release of the A+ Schools report occurred on the heels of a Nov. 5 meeting in which district officials outlined their financial plight. If no additional actions are taken, the administration expects to wipe out its operating balance and go broke by 2015.
Lane acknowledged the district's dilemma of having to improve student test scores with less money, but added, “We can't give up.”
On a positive note, the report shows, the number of students taking at least one Advanced Placement class rose by 1 percentage point to 15.2 percent. And compared with four years ago, more students scored at the proficient or advanced level in reading in grades 6-8 and 11, even exceeding the state scores.
“We know as students we have many challenges to overcome, but we know these challenges are not insurmountable,” said Jordan Brooks, a sophomore at CAPA, Downtown.
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Ah, but Robert that 68.5% doesn't correlate to what might typically be a product's satisfaction rate. One of the big problems we came to learn before we moved out of the city to get our daughter into a better school was how big of gap there is between the performance of the schools and the perception on the part of parents as to what the performance of the schools is. Ask any PPS parent and they'll happily tell you how their kids school is "the best school" and not like those other "bad schools" in the district. The numbers in this report don't even scratch the surface as to the extent of the problem - not only is a 2.5 gpa to qualify for a scholarship pathetic and the gap between performance in math shameful, just ask any of the local college admissions personnel or math professors about their experiences with graduates of the PPS and how woefully unprepared the vast majority of them are to succeed in college. Yes the gap is growing between white and minority students in math performance but virtually all the graduates of all races and genders groups are well below where they need to be to succeed in college and all but a few parents of these students will have a hint of this until their child applies.
Submitted by: Robert on Monday, November 12, 2012
Any consumer product with a 68.5% “graduation rate” would be investigated, discredited, and forced out of business. Yet we have the political class forcing minority and poor students to attend these failing institutions. How bad do the results have to be until elected officials care more about students than protecting institutions that feed their re-election? Students will continue to be sacrificed by the political class until voters are bold enough to demand that public institutions end the collection of union dues that are then used to re-elect the political class. This conflict of interest is what prevents minorities and the poor from exercising the choice available to others who can afford to move or pay for private schooling.
Submitted by: Robert on Monday, November 12, 2012
How bad does this have to get until elected officials care more about students than protecting the institution that feeds their re-election?