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Central York's test scores are declining — but some question whether it's evidence of an academic failure in the district or a systemic problem with standardized testing.

On Monday, administrators updated school board members on the district's 2018-19 standardized test scores, including the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment for grades 3-8 and the Keystone Exams for high school students.

Central was 1% below the state average for proficient or advanced students in PSSA English. But math had a much wider gap, with just 30% of students considered proficient or advanced — well below the statewide average of 42%, continuing a trend of low scores from last year.

The district was above the state average for proficient and advanced scores in Keystone literature — 73% compared with 71% — and 67% in algebra compared with the state's 63%, but fell 1% below in biology.

Superintendent Michael Snell said the biggest problem is that the PSSAs provide just a "snapshot in time" of student proficiency, while the Keystones directly correlate to courses students take that year. 

"We don't teach to the test," Snell said, adding that the district hasn't done so in three or four years.

Out of 136 students who took the algebra exam early in eighth grade — after completing the course that year — 90% scored proficient or advanced.

"I will trust the Keystone much more than the millions of dollars that we’re spending on the PSSA," Snell said.

More: York County administrators divided on ditching Keystone exam

But board member Joseph Gothie said the district can't rely on that — it needs a measure for grade-level evaluation without waiting until the SATs.

"If I can’t measure it, how can I manage it?" he said. "I feel at some degree like I’ve got a blindfold on and we’re steering the ship, and we don’t know if we’re headed for the shoals or we’re headed for the harbor."

Looking at average PSSA math scores for fourth graders from 2015 to 2019, the district's proficient and advanced scores were only at 40% compared with the state's 60%.

At the most recent quarterly proficiency check-in, only 50 students were failing one to three courses at the intermediate school, out of 945 students enrolled.

But 101 of the 481 total 2019 graduates had been in danger of failing at some point, said Assistant Superintendent Robert Grove.

Possible reasons for the PSSA math decline could be the large numbers of opt-outs, which many do for religious reasons, Grove said.

More: Two incumbents out as Republicans sweep Central York school board race

Opt-outs have been increasing each year, starting with 117 opt-outs in 2016 and reaching 246 in 2019, Grove said Monday.

 "The numbers do impact our overall ratings," he said. 

Central York Middle School Principal Kelly Harper said among other local middle school principals — one of which cited 13 opt-outs as a high — the district definitely had the most in the county.

Other factors affecting scores could be new state standards and student pacing, Grove said.

“A few years ago the state of Pennsylvania implemented new benchmarks, raising the benchmark level, which resulted in a decrease of scores across the state," he said. 

But that was not enough to ease board concerns.

"We talk about the change in the benchmark kind of like, 'don’t panic,'" said board member Jane Johnson. “I am still concerned at the decline before that and the steady decline after that.”

Starting in 2017, particularly in math, the bottom fell out, it seems, Gothie said.

That year, Central saw a minus 13.59 average growth index, according to data from the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment — which tracks whether students made at least a year of growth compared with the year before.

More: State report card: York City district excels in growth; Central York, Dover struggle

A growth index below minus two indicates significant evidence that students did not meet the growth standard on that assessment, according to the PVAAS website.

Grove said rather than test scores, classroom visits can give first-hand experience of what's working and what's not.

But Gothie countered that, much like the PSSAs, one classroom visit doesn't give a sense of measurement over time.

Board member Michael Wagner said the PSSA math scores definitely stood out, and he'd be interested in consulting with educators who have and have not taught to the test to compare what they accomplished in each method.

The district could also have done a better job a couple of years ago keeping students on track with the pace of their peers, while still finding a good balance that allowed them to learn at their own level, Grove said.

If a student has to take an assessment on material he or she has not yet reached, that too can hurt scoring, he said, but the end goal is not preparing students for the PSSA.

"It's really about making sure that the kids learn the material — not just being exposed, but really learn."

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