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Pittsburgh schools watchdog group's report details further decline

| Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, 11:04 a.m.
Carey Harris is the executive director of A+ Schools. (Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review)
Carey Harris is the executive director of A+ Schools. (Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review)
Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane visits classrooms at the new Academy at Westinghouse in Homewood. (James Knox  |  Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane visits classrooms at the new Academy at Westinghouse in Homewood. (James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

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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