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Achievement gap persists in Pittsburgh Public School system

Jamie Martines
| Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, 1:51 p.m.
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet greets children at the University Prep school in the Hill District last year. (Trib photo)
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet greets children at the University Prep school in the Hill District last year. (Trib photo)

There are two districts within the Pittsburgh Public School system: One where student achievement is high, the suspension rate is low and schools are welcoming. In the other, there are achievement gaps between white students and students of color, teacher turnover is frequent and rates of chronic absenteeism and suspensions are high, said James Fogarty, executive director of the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit A+ Schools.

Those are the findings of a report by A+ Schools released Monday reviewing student achievement in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system, Fogarty said. The report analyzed the results of the 2016-17 school year PSSA and Keystone Exams.

Gaps in student achievement often fall along racial and socioeconomic lines, Fogarty said. About 53 percent of students in the Pittsburgh Public School system are black, while about 63 percent of the 22,384 students in the district are economically disadvantaged, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education data.

“We know that if we're not closing this gap, we're not going to be able to make sure that all students are ready for the jobs of today,” Fogarty said. About 35 percent of black students in grades three through five scored advanced or proficient on the PSSA reading exam, while 68 percent of white students in the district scored in that range. Statewide, those numbers were similar, with 34 percent of black students passing the exam and 71 percent of white students falling in that range.

Results were lower across the board in math. About 19 percent of Pittsburgh's third through fifth-graders scored advanced or proficient on the exam, while 55 percent of their white peers scored in that range. Statewide, 18 percent of black students scored advanced or proficient compared to 58 percent of white students.

“Pittsburgh on average is doing pretty much the same as the state, which isn't good,” Fogarty said. “But overall, we're seeing some significant challenges for black students in this district.”

Also among the data points highlighted in the report was a disparity between black and white students who qualified for the full Pittsburgh Promise scholarship, which requires a grade point average of at least 2.5 to qualify for a scholarship of up to $7,500 per year at Pennsylvania colleges and technical schools.

Last year, 83 percent of white students were eligible, compared to 51 percent of black students, according to the report.

About 66 percent of the district's seniors overall earned a grade point average that qualified them for the scholarship, the report said.

Moving forward, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said that the district will strive to address the achievement gap before students walk through the schoolhouse doors.

“Some of our children are doing well, some of them are not,” Hamlet said. “But understanding that the achievement gap does not start at pre-k, it starts at birth, what are we doing as a city, as a community, to really stop the achievement gap at birth?”

He also added that the district is working to build a data management system that would help teachers review students' day-to-day academic performance. While PSSA and Keystone Exam data are useful, Hamlet noted that the results discussed Monday are months old.

Looking at classroom-specific data on a daily basis could help teachers and principals target areas of need and provide extra support or enrichment opportunities to ensure that students do not fall behind, he said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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