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Middle-schoolers across Pa. struggle with new exam standards
Across the state and county, two noticeable trends emerged in schools' exams and student performance scores in 2016: middle school exams and performance scores dropped, while high school scores increased.
Students in grades 3 to 8 take Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams each spring. In 2015, new, more rigorous standards were introduced, which educators say caused a drop in PSSA scores for every district in the county. The 2016 exams marked the second year the more difficult standards were used.
Overall, school districts saw slight improvements in 2016, but middle school students were the exception, both locally and statewide.
School Performance Profile scores are given to each school in each district based on a variety of indicators, but they rely heavily on standardized test scores. For the first time since 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Education saw significant growth on math Keystone exams taken at the high school level, which affected high school profile scores.
But some administrators said they believe the profile scores rely too heavily on standardized test scores.
Middle school: Both scores were discussed at the Nov. 15 school board meeting in the West York Area School District, where middle school scores were lower than expected.
In a subsequent interview, Superintendent Emilie Lonardi said after 2015's scores, the district responded with initiatives such as the "What I Need" period, which allows students to focus on subjects they struggle with.
However, the initiatives didn't appear to help.
"We felt OK about our scores everywhere else and we had growth everywhere else," Lonardi said. "It is slightly comforting that we're not the only ones, but we were still disappointed because we have a lot of interventions in place."
In 2015, West York Middle School had 69.8 percent of students scoring proficient or above on the English Language Arts exam, but that number dropped to 63.3 percent in 2016. Students in the school who scored proficient or above on the math PSSA exam also dropped from 50.3 percent in 2015 to 46.1 percent in 2016. Additionally, there were more students scoring below basic on both the ELA and math exams in 2016 than in 2015.
The four scoring tiers for PSSAs, from highest to lowest, are advanced, proficient, basic and below basic.
State middle and elementary schools did not get assigned a profile score in the 2014-15 school year because the new, more rigorous, common core standards were enacted.
However, in the 2013-14 school year, West York Middle School achieved a profile score of 73.2. That dropped to 55.3 in 2016.
Eastern York Middle School Principal Keith Shoemaker was alarmed when he saw his school's scores this year.
"Our score was so high," said Shoemaker, referring to past years. "I was really upset because we dropped so much, but then looking as a whole, middle schools across the county dropped so much, too."
Eastern York Middle School didn't see much change in PSSA scores from 2015 to 2016. For ELA, 75.4 percent of the students scored proficient or above on the exam both years. For math, scores increased from 44.9 percent of students scoring proficient or above in 2015 to 50.3 percent in 2016.
However, from 2015 to 2016, for both exams there were fewer students scoring basic and more students scoring below basic.
The profile score for the middle school was 79.4, a fairly high score countywide. But it dropped from 86.3 in the 2013-14 school year. According to the Pennsylvania School Performance website, the district was lower than expected in the percent of the required gap closure — the gap between the highest and lowest performing students — in ELA and science.
The drop in scores wasn't completely unexpected.
Nicole Reigelman, press secretary and communications director for the state Department of Education, pointed out the trend goes beyond York County — it's statewide. The department believes the drop coincides with the new, more rigorous core standards and the age of middle school students, she said.
Younger students have had more exposure to the new state core standards. Older students have been taught and tested in a different manner for most of their school career.
"The longer students are exposed to the standards, the better they end up doing," Riegelman said.
Comparing scores prior to the new standards with those achieved after implementation can be misleading, she stressed.
Although scores dropped from the 2013-14 year, it's important to remember students are working toward different benchmarks, she added.
High schools: Meanwhile, high schools typically saw a jump in math Keystone results. That translated to increases in profile scores in the past two years. High schools in Pennsylvania were the only schools to receive a profile score in 2015 because, unlike middle and elementary schools, they were not subjected to new core standards on their Keystone exams.
In York County, 12 of 17 high schools saw a jump in profile scores, and those that decreased typically saw a relatively small decrease, according to state data. Northern York High School had the biggest increase in profile scores between 2015 and 2016. In 2015, the school's profile score was 67.3, but the score jumped to 86.9 this year — an increase of 19.6 points.
The high school had an increase in its Keystone exam scores in the past two years as well, explaining the jump in profile scores. For the Algebra I Keystone exam, 66.2 percent of students in the high school were proficient or above in 2015. That jumped to 76.8 percent of students in 2016.
On the Keystone biology exam, 67.6 percent of students were considered proficient or above in 2015, but the number increased to 76.7 percent in 2016. Finally, 65.8 percent of students were considered proficient or above on the literature exam in 2015, and the number jumped to 82 percent in 2016.
Northern York County School District administrators did not return requests for comment.
Reigelman mentioned that Gov. Tom Wolf has encouraged the state Education Department to look into the profile scores and find better ways to calculate growth at schools. That's because the calculation now relies so heavily on standardized testing, which isn't always a complete picture of how a district is doing. Starting in 2017, the department is expecting to have recommendations for improvements.
The Education Department, at Wolf's direction, has reached out to more than 100 administrators and other stakeholders, Reigelman said, to solicit feedback.
"Right now it's heavily reliant — and overly reliant — on standardized tests, and it should factor in more assessments and be weighted a little differently," she said.