Results in state math and reading tests dropped in so many local schools this year that the number of them on an annual state "low-achieving" list could climb from six to nine, a Times Leader analysis shows.
The "low-achieving schools" list was mandated by Act 85 of 2012, the law that created the state's new Opportunity Scholarship 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.
Any student living in the "attendance zone" of a low-achieving school is eligible for those scholarships, and the money can be used to attend any public or private school that has applied to the state to be part of the program.
The state released the first list of low-achieving schools just weeks after Act 85 became law July 2, in order to get the program rolling in time for this school year. Six Luzerne County schools made the list: GAR High School and Heights-Murray, Dodson and Kistler elementary schools in Wilkes-Barre Area School District, and Hazleton Area High School and Hazleton Elementary/Middle School in Hazleton Area School District.
By law, the state must release a new low-achieving list by Feb. 1 each year. That list is determined by school results in state reading and math tests – known as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment – administered the year before.
The list of low-achieving schools released this summer was compiled using test results from the 2010-11 school year. Results for 2011-12 were released Sept. 21, and the percentage of students scoring proficient or better in math had dropped in 34 of 55 Luzerne County schools, while the percentage in reading had dropped in 44 schools.
There is no way to make the calculations as precisely as the state does because the data made public is not as refined as data available to the state. But The Times Leader used a formula provided by the Department of Education to gauge which schools are likely to end up as next year's low achievers.
That analysis found that four more Luzerne County schools are poised to land on the next low-achieving list: Daniel Flood Elementary in Wilkes-Barre Area, Heights Terrace and West Hazleton elementary/middle schools in Hazleton Area, and Memorial Elementary in Hanover Area School District.
According to the Times Leader analysis, GAR High School in Wilkes-Barre Area is on the cusp of the 15 percent, and could actually work its way off the list next year, depending on how the state crunches the numbers.
A drop in test results does not necessarily increase the odds of landing on the low-achieving list, though all nine local schools likely to land on next year's list saw declines. The list is compiled by comparing schools to each other regardless of test scores. Schools that scored in the bottom 15 percent statewide are deemed low achieving.
In fact, critics have pointed out that many schools with good academic records ended up on this year's list.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association compared the low-achieving list to the state's annual list of schools achieving "Adequate Yearly Progress" toward the federally mandated goal of having all students score proficient or better by 2014. AYP measures test results against a fixed goal, as well as other aspects of a schools' performance.
The PSBA review found that 25 percent of this year's low-achieving schools had made AYP. "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 said in a press release.
The state's response is simple: AYP is a separate measure that is not relevant in determining the list of low-achieving schools.
Having schools land on the list can be financially draining for school districts because the state subsidy for a student who transfers out of the district through an opportunity scholarship goes with the student.
Local administrators have pointed out that losing a student does not mean corresponding savings for the district. Enough students would have to transfer out in a single grade to justify eliminating a classroom teaching position.
An analysis found that four more Luzerne County schools are poised to land on the next low achieving list: Daniel Flood elementary in Wilkes-Barre Area, Heights Terrace and West Hazleton Elementary/Middle schools in Hazleton Area, and Memorial Elementary in Hanover Area School District.