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State test scores to reflect race, gender, other information

| Monday, April 29, 2002

Public schools in Pennsylvania can now look at student achievement in terms of race, gender and other categories.

For the first time in 2000-01, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment has broken down scores into the categories of race, gender, economically disadvantaged youth, students with special needs, migrant students and students with limited English proficiency.

The PSSA tests are taken in fifth, eighth and 11th grades.

For the majority of Mon Valley schools, the new categories provide insight into differences in gender performance and that of economically disadvantaged students. However, statistics on test scores by race are calculated only in the Monessen and Ringgold school districts because the number of minority students taking the tests in other area schools were below 10.

Likewise, data on migrant students and those with limited English proficiency were also not recorded because of low or absent numbers.

Not all educators think the new school profile offers valuable information.

"We already know certain things about child development concerning the differences in boys and girls," said Karen Polkabla, principal at Donora Elementary School. "We know that boys are late bloomers and they learn to grasp concepts quicker at a later stage. I don't believe there is anything there that will help us right now."

Frazier Middle School Principal Barbara J. Mehalov, though, thinks the new breakdown will be beneficial in determining how well special needs students who are mainstreamed are performing in the classroom setting.

"I believe it has some validity for us to see if the inclusion of study in the classroom is raising (test) scores," said Mehalov. "We can see whether or not they have grown by including them in the regular classroom.

"It also gives us a pretty clear picture of how we compare with similar school districts" in those categories," said the principal.

The 2000-01 PSSA results indicate the number of children in each category, and the percentage of these students who score at the four performance levels - advanced, proficient, basic and below basic.

Scores according to gender varied among Mon Valley schools, with marked differences in only a few schools.

At Belle Vernon Area High School, nearly twice as many female test-takers, or roughly 35 percent, scored below basic proficiency in mathematics compared to the male students. At Rostraver Elementary School in the BVA district, three times the number of males scored below basic proficiency in reading than their female counterparts, at 29.9 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively.

At H.W. Good Elementary School in the Yough School District, 8.5 percent of the females were ranked in the advanced percentile in mathematics while nearly 27 percent of the male students attained the advanced level. The female students, however reached proficiency at 48.9 percent compared to 22 percent by male test-takers.

At West Newton Elementary School, also in the Yough district, roughly 13 percent of the males were "below basic" in mathematics, while no females fell in that group.

At Monessen High School, about 32 percent of the females failed to reach the basic level in reading, about three times that of the number of males (11.4 percent).

At Beth Center Middle School, 27.5 percent of the female students scored in the advanced percentile in reading while only 8.2 percent of the males ranked in the advanced level.

At Perry Elementary School in the Frazier district, nearly 21 percent of the females placed at the advanced level in reading, compared to only 4.3 percent of the male students.

Roughly 12 percent of the male test-takers in the Charleroi Area High School scored in the advanced percentile in mathematics while less than 2 percent of the females reached that level.

The breakdown of performance on the PSSA tests according to race revealed a wide disparity between white and African-American students.

At Monessen High School, 58.3 percent of African-American students fell below basic levels on both the math and reading portions of the test.

Monessen Principal Randall Marino previously said he had not yet studied the results and would need more time to comment on the gap in scores according to race.

At Carroll Middle School in the Ringgold School District, 45.5 percent of African-American test-takers scored below basic level in mathematics, however, 43.9 percent of white students did also.

In the reading portion, roughly 45 percent of the African-American students also scored below basic compared to nearly 30 of the white students.

At Ringgold's Donora Elementary School, 64.3 percent of the African-American students scored below basic level.

Test results showed that students with learning disabilities scored significantly lower in all Mon Valley schools. There were no statistics for migrant students in any of the Mon Valley schools.

At California Area High School, a whopping 92.9 percent of students with special needs fell below basic in mathematics and roughly 75 percent in reading.

Test performances by economically disadvantaged students in all area schools were significantly lower.

At BVA high school, economically disadvantaged students scored nearly three times lower in both math and reading.

At Frazier Middle School, nearly 82 percent of the students with special needs fell below basic in mathematics.

According to Education Secretary Charles B. Zogby, the recent PSSA test scores show too many of Pennsylvania's children are falling behind academically, and a disproportionate number of those children are minorities.

"This 'achievement gap' is not unique to Pennsylvania, but we must decide what Pennsylvania will do to close it," said Zogby. "We believe shining a light on this problem is the first step to fixing it."

According to Zogby, last year roughly 18 percent of African-American fifth-graders scored proficient or satisfactory in the state's reading assessment, while nearly 54 percent of African-American fifth-graders scored below basic. About 21 percent of Hispanic fifth-graders scored proficient and about 49 percent of Hispanic fifth-grades scored below basic.

In contrast, the results show nearly 41 percent of white fifth-grade students and roughly 33 percent of Asian students scored proficient, while about 16 percent and roughly 19 percent scored below, respectively.

In an effort to help children reach higher levels of academic achievement, the Schweiker administration launched the Classroom Plus tutoring program for children struggling in math and reading. The program offers grants of up to $500 to parents of children in grades 3 to 6 who are performing at the below basic proficiency levels on the PSSA tests in fifth grade or in the bottom quartile of other nationally recognized standardized tests.

Parents, teachers and taxpayers also can learn more about their schools than just the test data by accessing the Pennsylvania's school profiles available through PAPowerport.

Based on data from the 2000-01 school year, the site also includes statistics on teachers, including degrees and years of services; length of individual school day and calendar years; school enrollment and attendance figures; intended pursuits of high school graduates; school district financial information; drop-out rates; class size; staffing programs offered by the school; the district's average SAT and ACT scores; and the types of commercial, standardized tests administered at schools.

Also last fall, the state unveiled its "School Finance 101" Web site to help Pennsylvanians learn the fundamentals of school finance, addressing topics such as school budgeting, accounting and reporting, auditing, school investments, revenue sources, taxes and borrowing.

Another resource, "Your Schools, Your Money," became available in February. This Web site displays school-by-school and district-level expenditures and shows taxpayers how their schools spend tax dollars.

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