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Education

Pittsburgh Public Schools grapple with declining enrollment, racial achievement gap, state testing, data show

| Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, 10:36 p.m.

Graduation rates and academic performance have improved in Pittsburgh Public Schools, but the district continues to grapple with declining enrollment, a growing racial achievement gap and tough state testing standards, according to a report released Monday.

Compiling data from the district and state Department of Education, the advocacy group A+ Schools found that only half of the district's third-grade students can read at that grade level. Enrollment in the district has dropped by more than 1,000 students during the past four years. And new PA Core Standards, the state's version of Common Core, widened the already significant achievement gap between black and white students in the district.

This is the first year Pittsburgh students took the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA, test after its alignment with new state standards.

“We have resisted, and we hope you will, too, comparing these results to previous years,” said Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools. Most schools reported dramatic, but not unexpected, declines in scores on the more challenging test.

The district is exploring the reason for the continued decline in enrollment, Superintendent Linda Lane said. She suspects it's a combination of more students entering charter schools and a smaller population of school-aged children in the district.

The district also struggles with high suspension and absenteeism rates, the report found, although some schools made improvements in those areas.

The district is evaluating policies about when suspension is a suitable punishment and is trying to work more with parents to curb absences, Lane said.

Of particular concern, Lane said, is the finding that black students were four times as likely to be suspended as white students in the 2012-13 school year. Fifty-three percent of the district's students are black.

Generally, the achievement gap between black and white students in the district mirrored the statewide numbers, the report found.

White elementary school students scored 34 percentage points higher than black students in reading and 35 points higher in math on the PSSA. White high school students scored 27 percentage points higher in literature and 33 points higher in algebra.

Graduation rates in Pittsburgh improved from 68 percent to 74 percent between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years, the report states. More students qualified for Pittsburgh Promise scholarships, which are awarded to students based on their attendance record, grade point average and admission into a Pennsylvania post-secondary school.

But more than 400 high school students graduated last year without meeting the scholarship's required grade point average of at least 2.5, Harris said.

“We know we have to do better,” she said.

Elizabeth Behrman is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at lbehrman@tribweb.com or 412-320-7886.

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