SEE ALSO: Despite growing up with PSSAs, students' scores fell

Optimistic superintendents and principals tell their school boards a new technique or a new program should lead to a boost in PSSA scores this year.

It's a similar refrain every year.

Hope springs eternal. Or, in the case of the PSSAs, superintendents eternally hope spring brings proficient students.

School district administrators might bemoan having students take a single set of tests each year to determine whether they know what they're supposed to know,

but it's still the primary means for parents, taxpayers and state officials to judge a school district's progress.

The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exam is the state's method of complying with No Child Left Behind.

It's why districts are always rolling out new programs, asking for more teachers and asking students to get extra tutoring.

With each year since the PSSAs started on a limited basis in the 2002-2003 school year, district officials say they are getting better ideas how to prepare students for the exam -- and for long-term academic success.

So is it paying off in higher rates of student proficiency, the PSSA term for a student doing grade-level work? Are more students showing at least adequate reading and math skills?

Yes and no: The simple answer is yes, but the more complicated answer is there appears to be a ceiling to progress districts just can't break through, according to an analysis by The York Dispatch.

Most school districts have made big strides in increasing math scores since the PSSA debuted. Gains in reading aren't as substantial but are still common.

All considered, the PSSA exams are pushing districts and teachers to get better results out of their students.

The analysis compares the fifth-, eighth-, and 11th-grade PSSA scores in 2003-04, just after the tests were introduced, to last year, the most recent scores available.

Grading the tests: The state rates each school district's performance on the PSSAs by comparing one year's proficiency scores to the prior year's.

Every few years, the state increases the minimum percentage of students who must be proficient in order for a district or school to meet standards. This makes it all the more important for districts to be doing much better now than they were eight years ago.

In 2003-04, at least 35 percent of students needed to be proficient in math, and at least 45 percent needed to be proficient in reading.

Last year, the state standard was at 67 percent in math and 72 percent in reading.

The news doesn't get any better for districts already playing catch-up: This year, for the PSSA students just wrapped up, the standard is 78 percent math proficiency and 81 percent reading proficiency. By 2013-14, 100 percent of students must be proficient in reading and math.

That means school districts have to make progress virtually nonstop. If they don't, they face state intervention.

Biggest gains: Some have accomplished that major progress. Red Lion and South Western had 20-plus percent increases in math proficiency in 2010-11 compared to eight years prior.

South Eastern boosted fifth-grade math scores from 55 percent in 2003-04 to 91.2 percent in 2010-11, one of the top scores in the county and a 36 percent increase.

Northeastern had similar growth at the fifth- and eighth-grade levels for math.

Changes in teaching: Assistant Superintendent Shawn Minnich, who has worked at various levels in Northeastern in the past eight years, said the district is "extremely data-intensive" compared to 2003-04.

Following a trend around the state, there is much more focus on analyzing each student's test data, he said. Now, instead of believing little Johnny is bad at math, a teacher knows little Johnny is struggling with long division in particular.

That leads to more specialized remediation plans, which, in theory, lead to faster progress. There also was an overhaul of Northeastern's curriculum so it became standardized from building to building and matches what the state expects students to know.

"You can say what you want about the PSSAs, but one thing it definitely requires school districts to do is they really have to know what they are teaching and know what their students are learning," Minnich said. "That's something the public doesn't understand, just how much education has changed."

In years past, it was up to the individual teacher to figure out why a student was struggling. Now, a team of teachers gets together to analyze data and talk strategy, Minnich said.

New way to teach math: Minnich also attributes Northeastern's math success to a switch about five years ago to the Everyday Math program.

The program uses a different approach to teaching math than the one most adults know. It emphasizes "spiraling," or teaching advanced concepts early on and then coming back again and again to the same principles.

Everyday Math also gets some of the credit for South Western's success, said Superintendent Barb Rupp.

Rupp said she and colleagues used to joke that one day, every student, not just those in special education, would get an individualized learning plan. That has essentially come true, she said, and her school is better prepared as a result.

At West York, Superintendent Emilie Lonardi has been at the helm for the duration of the PSSAs. In that time, West York has added Everyday Math, special periods for secondary students to work on areas of weakness and time set aside once a month for teachers to analyze data.

There's even an incentive West York began recently, designed to get more high-schoolers to take the PSSA seriously -- those who pass it get out of school early on certain days.

It motivates students, Lonardi said. Plus, when those students leave early, the teachers can increase focus on the fewer remaining students.

Going backward: Others, though, seemingly are going backward. Dover's eighth-graders performed worse in reading and math than Dover's eighth-graders from 2003-04.

But the worst case is in York City. Their fifth-grade scores dipped about 10 percent in reading and math proficiency when comparing 2003-04 to 2010-11.

The city eighth- and 11th-graders did better overall in 2010-11 than in 2003-04, but that's with a giant grain of PSSA salt. The scores only improved about 10 percent, and they were so low back then, improvement was likely.

York City Superintendent Deborah Wortham could not be reached for comment.

Most of the city's 2010-11 PSSA scores in fifth, eighth and 11th grades would not have met 2003-04 PSSA standards, let alone last year's.

Sustaining progress: The progress many districts are making is constantly in jeopardy, though.

There's the constant flux of special-education and transfer students and those who don't primarily speak English, which can drag down a district's scores in any given year.

Lonardi said districts can't expect to hit 100 percent proficiency, not with special-education students who, by definition, aren't doing grade-level work.

She's hoping as years go by, the PSSA standards put in place all those years ago will start to morph into a model that emphasizes showing individual growth, rather than hitting general benchmarks.

But the biggest issue seems to be budget cuts, according to school officials.

Those cuts are taking away the very tools that have helped districts make the progress taxpayers and the state demand, superintendents said.

South Western had math and literacy coaches that did wonders for students, but the district couldn't afford to keep some of them once grant funding ran out, said Rupp, a 13-year veteran at South Western.

"There are increased expectations. And then you have districts that are laying off teachers and are increasing class size because of decreased funding," Rupp said.

Northeastern has been in the same crunch. Next year's budget includes cutting several interventionists.

"It's sad. We put these great things in place. Unfortunately, those positions are the first to go. We're eliminating many of the positions that helped drive" the success, he said.

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