For the second year in a row, the number of Luzerne County schools on the state’s “List of Low Achieving Schools” increased.
Yet, as has been the case since the list was introduced three years ago, some schools getting the “low achieving” moniker from the state do pretty well when measured with other state yardsticks.
Critics have pointed to such discrepancies from the start, arguing that the state is asking schools to meet two different standards.
The issue exists because the “low achieving” list is based on a relative standard: The state combines the percentage of students scoring proficient or better in reading and math tests, then uses those numbers to rank elementary and high schools on separate lists. Any school in the bottom 15 percent of those two lists is “low achieving.”
When the first list of low achieving schools came out in 2012, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association pointed out that 25 percent of the schools on the list had achieved “Adequate Yearly Progress” as required by federal and state law. From 2003 until last year, AYP was the primary measure of school academic success; it measured math and reading test results against specific goals that rose steadily over the years.
“Labeling these schools as low-achieving when they have met the student achievement standards set by the state and federal government functions to create two separate and conflicting measurements for student achievement,” the PSBA argued. The state disagreed, insisting AYP and the low achieving list were separate and unrelated.
In 2012 six Luzerne County Schools landed on the low achieving list. Two were in Hazleton Area School District: The high school and Hazleton Elementary/Middle School. The other four were in Wilkes-Barre Area: GAR Memorial High School and Dodson, Kistler and Heights-Murray elementary schools. Of those, Heights Murray had met AYP goals but was considered “making progress” after missing the goals for three years.
Five schools added
In 2013 the same schools were on the list, with five local schools added: Heights Terrace and West Hazleton in Hazleton Area, Daniel Flood in Wilkes-Barre Area, State Street Elementary in Wyoming Valley West and Hanover Area Memorial Elementary. None had made AYP.
This year, Hanover Area Junior/Senior High School joined the list, as did McAdoo-Kelayres in Hazleton Area and Meyers Junior/Senior High School in Wilkes-Barre area. But AYP no longer exists. Last year it was replaced with new state School Performance Profiles, a more complex system that uses numerous standardized test results to derive a single score for each school, from 0 to 100, with seven “extra credit” points available.
There was no initial minimum score districts had to meet, though Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq said 70 was a good benchmark for the first year.
By that measure, three of the local “low achieving” schools are a success.Hanover Area Memorial Elementary had an SPP score of 75.3, while the district’s high school scored 75. Wilkes-Barre Area’s Dodson Elementary scored 71.1.
Two other local low achieving schools this year missed the 70 point SPP threshold by fewer than four points: Kistler Elementary scored 66.9, while West Hazleton Elementary Middle School scored 66.1
The state’s argument that the low achieving list is unrelated to AYP or it’s successor, SPP, is simple: The latter are the result of the 2001 federal law known as “No Child Left Behind,” which was intended to improve proficiency in reading and math nationwide.
The former is the result of the state law known as Act 85 of 2012, which created the state’s “Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit” program.
Tax credit program
Under that program, businesses can earn tax credits for contributions to scholarship funds designed to give students more choice in the schools they attend. Students who live in the attendance zone of a low achieving school become eligible for that scholarship money, even if they don’t attend the low achieving school in question.
The scholarships can only be used to attend schools that are participating in the program. And while the number of local schools on the low achieving list has expanded each year, the number of schools accepting the opportunity scholarships is the same this year as last: 15.
The Luzerne County schools accepting Opportunity Scholarship students are: Al Noor Islamic Academy in Wilkes-Barre, I’m Big Now Learning Center in Dallas, Immanuel Christian School in Hazleton, Israel Ben Zion Academy/United Hebrew Institute in Wilkes-Barre, MMI Preparatory School in Freeland, Wilkes-Barre Academy in Wilkes-Barre, Wyoming Seminary in Kingston, Wyoming Valley Children’s School in Forty Fort, and seven Diocese of Scranton Catholic Schools: Good Shepherd Academy in Kingston, Holy Family Academy in Hazleton, Holy Rosary in Duryea, St. Jude in Wright Township, Wyoming Area Catholic in Exeter, and St. Nicholas/St. Mary Elementary and Holy Redeemer High School in Wilkes-Barre