SEE ALSO: Special report: School districts struggle to push students' proficiency

The class of 2012 grew up with the PSSA.

Back when those students began taking the test, school superintendents were introducing new research-proven, data-backed, tried-and-true methods to get students ready.

Since then, those methods have become more and more attuned with how best to prepare students for the annual Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams.

The class of 2012 is one of the first to go through an entire academic career having only taken the PSSA, which started in 2003 as a means of seeing if a student can perform basic tasks you'd expect of someone in that grade.

One would think that by the time students took their final round of PSSAs in the 11th grade, a higher percentage would be proficient in reading and math than when they were in fifth grade, all those years and programs and dollars and tutors ago.

It's just not the case, at least not in York County.

Not sustaining pro gress: According to an analysis by The York Dispatch, the class of 2012 regressed in overall proficiency in either reading or math in nearly all 16 York County school districts.

For the most part, districts managed a 10 percent to 15 percent boost in overall proficiency for the class of 2012 through their middle school years. Then, reflecting a statewide trend, 11th-grade scores dropped off.

That drop-off is usually attributed by superintendents to 11th-graders' not taking the PSSA seriously, as it doesn't prevent them from graduating or affect their class grades. The state's newest exam, the Keystones, would have consequences but hasn't been fully rolled out.

Only two York County school districts -- Eastern and South Western -- were able to bump up reading and math proficiency scores in the class of 2012, when the scores from fifth grade are compared to the scores those students recorded in 11th grade.

How to fix it: So what's to be done, and why is progress slow even as districts feverishly try new strategies and new programs?

One major issue is trying to get students at the bottom of the performance spectrum up to proficiency, said Dallastown interim Superintendent Ronald Dyer.

Known as "below basic" in PSSA terminology, those students may show double-digit gains in proficiency over the course of half a decade, but it still might not be enough to catch them up to their peers, he said.

"That, to me, is the concern. That's why moving to 100 percent (proficiency) is elusive," Dyer said.

If a district trusts its system, has a great staff and has students come for extra hours, it might seem logical that the percentage of students who are below basic can be whittled down to just a few percent, he said.

"It's just not the reality," Dyer said.

That doesn't mean Dallastown is giving up on those students, he said. Just the opposite.

"It's what keeps me motivated and concerned," about finding solutions, Dyer said.

It might also be assumed by the community that districts can just find out which students are proficient in elementary school, then spend the later years focusing on getting the non-proficient students up to par.

With that logic, a class should have growing proficiency with each passing year as students catch up. But that doesn't always match up to reality, either, superintendents said.

Hanover Public Superintendent Al Moyer said budget cuts at his district and elsewhere have taken away some of the extra staff that would make some of that catch-up growth possible.

Even so, students struggling in Hanover at the upper levels are given lots of extra time to work on skills, Moyer said.

It's basically a necessity. Only about half of Hanover's 11th-graders from 2010-11 school year -- this year's seniors almost ready to graduate -- were proficient in reading and math.

By comparison, about 66 percent were proficient in math and 78 percent were proficient in reading when that same class was in eighth grade.

"We've pulled some kids out of music, social studies, P.E.," Moyer said, adding it's somewhat of a necessary evil of the PSSA proficiency game. "There's very little discretionary time."

Can't keep up pro gress: Some districts had trouble sustaining any progress, even through the middle school years.

Fluctuations in incoming or special-education students could be partially to blame, several school officials said.

In the most egregious case, just 26 percent of York City School District students were proficient in math as 11th-graders, a 33 percent drop from when they were fifth grade.

The drop-off is evident at the middle school level, too. As sixth-graders, only 40 percent of those students were proficient in math and 30 percent were proficient in reading, meaning there was an immediate drop in scores when those students hit middle school.

Better in both: South Western's class of 2012 managed to make small overall increases in math and reading proficiencies in the fifth/11th-grade comparison.

Part of that might be getting high-schoolers to take school more seriously, said Assistant Superintendent Barbara Kehr. The district's new high school policy no longer allows students to progress to the next course unless they get a 70 percent or higher in the last course.

"It took a long time for the kids to realize that everybody meant business," Kehr said.

-- Reach Andrew Shaw at 505-5431 or ashaw@yorkdispatch.com, or on Twitter @ydblogwork