Connellsville, neighboring school districts' leaders pleased with state's new ratings system
By Karl Polacek
Published: Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, 4:27 p.m.
Officials from Connellsville Area, Frazier, Mt. Pleasant Area and Southmoreland schools districts report the new state system of rating schools — the school performance profiles — is a much better system for rating and adjusting their systems than using just the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test scores.
But there are some changes that may make it difficult for parents to assess how well their schools are doing.
With the new system, schools are rated on a wide range of factors and subjects, not just test scores in the limited areas covered under the PSSA system.
The performance profiles cover the results of the PSSA tests, as well as other factors, like annual academic growth, graduation rate and attendance rate.
Under the old system, schools were rated mostly on the PSSA results, which are based on mathematics and English language skills tests given at grades 3 through 8 and grade 11 levels. Students also were tested in science in grades 4 and 9. The Keystone Exams, given as an end-of-course test at the high school level, determine how well graduating students have learned.
The new system will test a wider range of subjects as well as incorporating annual academic growth, graduation rate and attendance rate. Biology was added in 2013. As time goes on, the state will add more subjects to be tested. And graduation requirements for students — the Keystone requirements, designed to begin in 2017 — will broaden. Algebra II, chemistry and physics will be added later.
New ratings an improvement
All four superintendents said the new ratings are an improvement.
Connellsville Area Superintendant Dan Lujetic said the new system is much more helpful than just the PSSA tests.
“The PSSA score is still a big part,” Lujetic said. “Any time we have one test that makes up so much of an assessment, it can skew the results. But I think it is a big improvement. This is the first time we've had this system that allows us to see where our strengths and weaknesses are.”
Frazier Superintendent David Blozowich agreed, adding one problem with the PSSA system was the length of time between tests at the secondary level.
“Part of the problem was that the PSSA tests were given in eighth grade, then 11th,” Blozowich said. “That is not enough to measure (how much the students are learning.) The state has addressed the issue. The state has done a good job of it.”
Mt. Pleasant Area Superintendent Timothy Gabauer also agreed the new system is better than just PSSA scores. But there are still problems with the new system that can throw off the scores for an individual school, he said.
Donegal Elementary School, which has had high scores with the PSSA system compared with the overall state average, came in 2013 with a much lower score on the new system, just at 67.5, which is below the 70.0 cutoff level for acceptable scores. In 2012, the third-grade scores in mathematics and reading were well above the state averages.
“It is not necessarily academic problems,” Gabauer said. “With the attendance, with only 190 students, if you have 3 or 4 students absent on a particular day, it skews the scores.”
Southmoreland Superintendent John Molnar said the district's high school scores were lower because of the grade level at which most students in the district take Algebra 1.
The Algebra 1 tests were given at the 11th-grade level and that created lower scores, according to Molnar.
“We had kids take the test (at the 11th-grade level) who took Algebra 1 in eighth grade,” Molnar said. “We could have said, if you're in 11th grade trigonometry and pre-calculus, we will put the brakes on for the next 12 weeks and run an Algebra 1 course review. We chose not to do that. We knew it would lower scores.”
For those students who showed they were not proficient, the district had them retake the test.
Molnar also said moving Algebra 1 back to the high school level was not an option because it would limit students from taking the higher level math courses to which they now have access.
What the district decided to do was have more students take the Student Aptitude Test (SAT), normally given in the past for those who have decided to go to college.
“We decided we would make a good decision for kids to take the SATs who would not normally take the test. We had money set aside for the kids who would not normally take it,” Molnar said.
Tim Eller, press secretary for the state Department of Education, said the department understood that problem and had requested a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. However, the waiver was denied.
Southmoreland also changed its system of classes at the high school level, beginning with ninth grade this year. Before, there were separate requirements for academic and college prep courses. Now, most of the academic requirements have been dropped in favor of those for college prep. Molnar said results from the changes in the high school curriculum won't show up for a few years on the state tests.
Districts are adjusting
As new subjects are added to the Keystone tests, districts will have to adjust.
All four superintendents said biology, added in 2013 for the first time, showed where the districts must improve in that area and also showed the advantage of the new system in finding and addressing weaknesses.
“In biology, our students averaged 32 percent,” said Blozowich of Frazier. “The state average was not much better, but we didn't make the state average. We didn't hit the mark at all there. So we have a lot of work to do.”
Molnar said Southmoreland also let scores stand on biology and in Algebra 1 and did not make the students retake the tests after holding a refresher course.
“It was an ethical decision we made,” said Molnar, explaining it was felt that it was more important to produce well-rounded students rather than “cram for exams.”
The students' backgrounds may also have an effect on the test scores.
While Mt. Pleasant Area's Donegal Elementary scores seem relatively low, the scores in the biology portion were well above the state averages, with a score of 80.9. Many of the students in that school come from a rural background.
All of the superintendents said the results of the scores have the educators in the districts adjusting.
For Frazier, the change in focus has already brought dividends in mathematics.
“The high school score of 73.4 is above the 70 percent line,” Blozowich said. “If you look at the high school growth (score), it was 100 percent in the math group. There was a warning in math, but the students did so well, they were able to pull themselves up. I do not believe we would have made the 70 percent cut without the improvement.
“Hopefully, it (the high school performance profile score) will be in the 80s (in 2014).”
“The principal, Scott Bryer, is working with Michael Picarsic (Mt. Pleasant's director of elementary and secondary education) trying to make improvements across the board,” Gabauer said. “The teachers are getting together as we speak. We're not sitting on our hands. We'll take a look. The district is (working to be) very aggressive.”
The complete report is available at www.paschoolperformance.org.
Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-626-3538.
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