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PSSA scores for District, charter schools: Philly students struggled in math

By Paul Socolar on Sep 29, 2015 06:02 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Julia R. Masterman School had the highest proficiency rates among all Philadelphia District and charter schools on the PSSA exams. Masterman requires high test scores as an admissions criterion.

As has happened across the state, math scores in grades 3-8 for both District and charter schools in Philadelphia sank this year on the new, tougher PSSA exam, which was aligned for the first time with Pennsylvania's more rigorous core standards.

The School District released test score results for each school weeks ago, but charter school results on the 2015 PSSA were released for the first time today by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Both statewide and in Philadelphia, English language arts proficiency rates were also down this year, though not nearly as low as rates on the math PSSA. Officials have advised not to compare this year's results to previous years because of the new exam.

School-by-school results show that only 10 public schools in the city, seven of them District schools, managed to have a majority of their students score proficient on last spring's PSSA math test. In six of those 10 schools, economically disadvantaged students are in the minority.

A Notebook analysis of the scores found that the median proficiency rate in math was under 11 percent among charter schools that have at least 10 students in grades 3-8. That slightly bested District schools' median proficiency rate in math, which was 9 percent.

For charter schools, median proficiency rates on the English and science exams were both at 38 percent. District schools had a median proficiency rate of 32 percent in science and 27 percent in English. (The median proficiency rate is the rate of the school that is in the middle when schools are arranged in order of their scores.)


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Comments (38)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 29, 2015 7:47 pm
Well, if my school required high test scores for admission, we'd scored the highest on testing too!! System is rigged.
Submitted by Alison McDowell (not verified) on September 29, 2015 7:53 pm

This drop in PA test scores has been manufactured by the powers that be. The same has happened in state after state. See New York in 2013 for example, or SBAC or PARCC resuts in numerous states this year. The narrative of failure sustains the privatization movement. To understand what really happened, you need to read this post the explains cut scores and how they are really very subjective:

I am disheartned that so little national context is provided in this story, and that so much space is given to infographics like the table above. Standardized test scores correlate to household income. A chart of the type above is really meaningless. It simply confirms that test scores=zip codes or a school's magnet status. That taxpayers spend $58.3 million on these standardized tests each year is such a travesty. If we really want to help children we should be investing in reducing class sizes, restoring school staff (including librarians), and providing proper classroom resources. We need more art and music, and sports, and play and extra-curriculars, not test-prep and test-remediation.

You can be sure the push this year will be to double down on teaching to the test-all year long. Joy? Gone. But we can stop data-driven instruction in its tracks. Parents simply have to refuse the tests. Opt out as if your legal right. Do it now, and opt out of benchmark testing as well. If you need support or information email me at Over 500 children in Philadelphia opted out last year. This year let's make it 5,000!


Submitted by Peter Hodgins (not verified) on May 22, 2017 5:38 pm

There's a lot of opportunities with modern technology for kids to do better in their math related test preparation if you think about.  Sites like Khan Academy Math and StudyPug Math Help are changing the way people learn and educate themselves.  I think the opportunity is exposing the kids to these new learning technologies and have them excel in math in their own time, without the need for a math tutor.

Submitted by Alison McDowell (not verified) on September 29, 2015 8:56 pm

West Chester Area School District Superintendent Dr. Scanlon decries excessive time being spent on testing:

Bad tests in Florida:

Opt Out Forms provided by a New York school superintendent:

Motion adopted by members of the PA School Board association outlining their concerns about the new cut scores: "The State Board held a lengthy discussion prior to adoption of the cut scores. Members expressed concerns with cut scores that translate into high student failure rates, particularly with math. They also noted lower scores may be expected occur as schools, students and teachers adjust to newly revised academic standards, curriculum and tests, and that results will improve over time. Other concerns were expressed with how the testing data is used in part to determine School Performance Profile scores, teacher evaluations, accountability ratings under the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver, and other measures. Members agreed that PDE must put supports into place for schools so that students can reach the higher targets. In addition, members said that PDE must clearly communicate to stakeholders and the public that the high bars set are goals and should not be construed as failure of public education as the transition to the PA Core Standards continues. For these reasons, the board adopted the motion that accompanied the approval of the cut scores."

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 29, 2015 9:52 pm


Thank you Alison. In case our readers do not know, Alison, aside from being one of the most  highly respected advocates amongst us, is one of the most educated, well informed and astute students of the politics and the fraud of high stakes testing. It is an insidious game which is being played at the expense of children. It hurts children by labeling them and their schools with false labels. Those classifications are arbitrary and meaningless.     

The tests do not measure proficiency at all. They do not reflect higher standards. They reflect higher "cut scores." Cut scores are not standards. The cut scores and the classifications are arbitrary and they do not correlate with any valid measure of "proficiency" in anything. In short, they have no "behavioral correlation" at all and are Not Valid. VAM (value added measurement) is not a valid measurement of anythinbg. It does not measure individual student growth.

Norm referenced tests are much more informative and scientific than those arbitrary and meaningless classifications.

It is time to have a bit of "intellectual honesty" in all of this.

What is happening before our eyes is the Greatest Disgrace in the history of American education.


Submitted by Paul Socolar on September 29, 2015 9:00 pm

A little more context on why we publish these scores here:

For several years, we haven't published PSSA results in our print edition. We're skeptical about the validity of high-stakes test results, space is scarce in print, and therefore it's difficult to provide all the needed context.

We have continued to include test data online. Space is not scarce, there's unlimited space to provide context, and we have a comment section where people can offer additional context and debate the significance of the numbers when we leave gaps in our coverage, as we sometimes do.

Also, large numbers of people seek out this information, and we'd rather they find it here than some other site that does not offer any context (eg, how often do other news outlets point out that Masterman only admits students with high test scores?).

So we hope that when we publish scores, it can generate productive discussion – and we are not endorsing high-stakes testing by publishing them.

Some immediate questions that our readers may be interested in and respectfully disagree about:

-Knowing that US students in general don't do well on international comparisons of math performance, should we be concerned that PA students did so poorly on the PSSA math exam, or is it just a lousy or meaningless exam?

-Knowing that PSSA scores closely correlate with income or zip code, what do we make of a school like FACTS Charter that regularly turns up near the top of the list in proficiency, even though they have a population that's 80% economically disadvantaged and don't do a lot of test prep?

-What do we make of the low test scores at some so-called Renaissance Schools, where providers have been hired with the specific expectation that they will improve student achievement as measured by standardized tests?

-Can teachers glean any useful information from these PSSA results that might guide their work?

Please discuss. More feedback welcome.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 29, 2015 10:12 pm

Is there a comprehensive source for where you are finding free/reduced lunch numbers? For example, where is the source for FACTS having 80% economically disadvanted students?

Submitted by Paul Socolar on September 29, 2015 10:58 pm

A state website allows you to look up any school and access demographic information for 2013-14


For District schools, info that is one year more current (2014-15) can be accessed here, by picking a school and then clicking on CEP Economically Disadvantaged

Submitted by Annoy (not verified) on September 30, 2015 9:41 am

FACTS charer is 68% Asian - very different than most school's demographics.  The only other schools with a  significant Asian population is Central with a plurality of Asian students.  (Masterman is 40% white and 28% Asia with only 18% African American.  Central is 35% Asian, 24% white, and 27% African American.  Latinos are underrepresented in all schools - only 4% at FACTS, 8% at Central and 4% at Masterman).  Since FACTS is suppose to specialize in immigrant students, its number of Latino students is low.  (Two neighborhood schools have high Asian popularion - Furness with 46% - majority immigrants - and very different test results than FACTS; McCall - 56% Asian because it includes Chinatown.)

Does it matter?  That is for further investigation.

Submitted by Concerned Philadelphian (not verified) on September 30, 2015 5:24 am

Thank you for the response.  Couple of comments:  (1)  Since a teacher may never look at the PSSA / Keystone exams and only receives scores (broken down by categories), it provides no useful information to inform instruction.  Teachers have "released items" to model questions but the PA Dept of Education has only released a few sample items.  Will the PDE release more sample items?  (2)  I don't know FACTS "magic" - I assume they have looked at what they are doing re: teaching / learning and how this transfers to standardized tests.  I also don't know if they have assess incoming kindergartenders to see how prepared they are to begin school.  It is worth a story including other factors (e.g. engaged parents, out of school supports, deep poverty versus "reduced lunch" level low income, etc.) The school's demographics don't reflect the city's or School District's demographics  (3) Based on the results, other than a very few "outliers," there is a correlation between income/results.  Take out the special admit schools (Masterman, Gamp), the wealtheir schools (e.g. Penn Alexander, Meredith, Greenfield, etc.) scored higher. (That said, Masterman and GAMP are two of the weathiest schools in the District.  Their demographics are also skewed - both are preominantly white / Asian.) Are there any "outliers" in other cities?  (Note:  The charter outliers are the former June Brown schools - how they "get" and "keep" students has always been questionable - in other words, they operate more like a special admit school.)

One concern is the District will follow the trend of some charters like Mastery and KIPP to have the entire curriculum focus on the test.  I'm sure their curriculum offices have put money into changing the math curriclum, purchasing materials, etc.  Remember, next year counts.

The larger question is how to do move away from a test driven evaluation / focus.  This includes SAT/PSAT, AP/IB, as well as PSSA/Keystone.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 30, 2015 6:26 am

FACTS is an interesting school which is deserving of study. If indeed their students on average scored high on merit and they do not do extensive test preparation or stretch the boundaries of testing propriety, then how are those scores attained? Is it perchance that they somehow have more academically talented students like Masterman does? Is it their pedagogy? Is it that they have highly motivated students? Or, is it because of other factors? 

As someone who has intensively studied cognitive development throughout my professional life as a reading specialist and school administrator, I have always professed that if children are given appropriate reading instruction from Pre-K forward and appropriate instruction in all other subjects; and a student does not have a learning disability or other intervening cognitive factors such as developmental delay due to poverty, the student will develop adequate reading ability and other cognitive abilities which will allow them to do well on any test.

I assure you that the test scores are correlational to reading ability.

Masterman has high test scores simply because they have first dibs on academically talented students and they "filter in" only the best, brightest and most academically talented students. I am sure that they also have very good teachers, too. They "filter out" students who do not meet and attain their standards. Cognitive development begins at birth and grows over the years because of what happens at home and what happens inside and outside of schools.  

I certainly hope FACTS is open to study and "sharing" their practices so that they may be replicated in other schools. 


Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 30, 2015 7:23 am

Paul, I thank you for the Notebook's diligence in presenting the test scores to us for easy access. I also thank the Notebook for providing at least one open space for "collegial discussion" and debate on the meaning of test scores and the propriety or impropriety of the way they are being used.

Please do not mistake my disgust of the present PSSA's, their misuses and the arbitrary classifications which are used today, for a lack of belief that there are appropriate uses of standardized tests. There are appropriate uses of diagnostic assessment and assessment used for scientific study of academic achievement. What is before us is not one of them.

I am a highly trained and experienced reading diagnostician with a Masters degree in Pyschology of Reading from Temple's once famous Reading Clinic. We always used such assessments appropriately and professionally to study the development of reading ability in students and as initial screening devices. I worked with a team of as many as 10 reading specialists for nearly 20 years. We actually taught the students we tested. We looked into "their eyes" every day.

What we should demand of the Department of Education is that all standardized tests also report national, state and local norms for every standardized test. When norms are laid next to the classifications used today -- we will see how misguided and meritless that they are.

Finally may I just say, that it is a "basic" tenant of diagnostic assessment that, if a child is tested at their "frustration level" -- a test yields no valid results other than to show that they were tested at their frustration level. What is obvious is that the majority of our students were tested at their frustration level.  

The present Common Core tests are quite frankly -- "below basic."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2015 10:36 am

Paul, I'm glad you brought up the Renaissance schools.  I am disappointed that this outlet, nor any other has looked at the vast amount of additional funding these schools have received from the state through School Improvement Grants.  Had the schools remained district schools, the funds would have stayed with the district/school.  How can this blatant inequity go unquestioned?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2015 12:48 pm


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2015 11:32 am

Paul - I'd like to suggest that you compare the PSSA levels as determined by the cut scores to the Philly percentiles.  For example, a student who was at the 82 percentile in Math on the 6th grade test in 2014 and at the 82 percentile in Math on the 7th grade test in 2015 went from Advanced to Basic.   


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 1, 2015 11:59 am

You can't reliably compare results from year to year because they are totally different tests on totally different material, especially in math.

Submitted by Alison McDowell (not verified) on September 29, 2015 10:34 pm

So does this mean the Notebook staff feels the readers should be developing the content in the comment section? Well, I guess that's a safe way to play it. Honestly, I think my time can be better spent on other endeavors. Most people here already know these tests are bogus. 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2015 12:54 pm

I'm a teacher and the test scores mean very little to me.  Give me a kid for a week and I can tell you what he/she will score on PSSAs.

Submitted by Annoy (not verified) on September 30, 2015 3:57 pm

Note:  Roosevelt School (now K-8, previously 6 - 8) is one of the lowest test performing schools in the District - in the bottom 5.  Why is Stefanie Ressler still a principal in the SDP?  She led the "miracle" improvement under Ackerman's regime at Roosevelt MS.  She is now at Wilson MS. Why hasn't she been fired? 

Submitted by simplyforposting (not verified) on September 30, 2015 5:48 pm

I think the district is still waiting for the criminal charges to be filed against her. 

Submitted by Lisa Haver on October 1, 2015 9:34 am

Ackerman held a big event which Rendell attended to celebrate the "miracle" when Reading test scores went up 52% in 2 years.  You didn't have to have a degree in statistics to know that that kind of increase is not possible.

In 2013 the SRC put Roosevelt on the list of schools to be closed.  When the community protested that with Germantown and Fulton on the list, that neighborhood would have no public school.  So the SRC's brilliant answer was to convert Roosevelt from a middle school to a K-8.  

So how is that working out for them?

When the manufacture a miracle, they alert the media.  When they screw up and trash a school, not so much. 

Submitted by Daun Kauffman (not verified) on September 30, 2015 5:43 pm


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Submitted by germantown_edu (not verified) on September 30, 2015 6:16 pm

Can somebody explain why top district schools like SLA, Palumbo, Carver, Central or CAPA are not included...


Submitted by Paul Socolar on September 30, 2015 6:01 pm

These are results on PSSA exams given to students in grades 3-8. The schools you list are high schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 30, 2015 6:09 pm

Paul, does this Renaissance question not deserve investigation?  Is there a fear of digging into why the SRC allowed millions to go to charters and leave the cash strapped district?  Readers need to know.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on September 30, 2015 7:53 pm

Thanks for the suggestion - it's worth looking into, and it's not something the Notebook has looked into for a while. ... the amount of School Improvement Grant funding is not as much as it used to be, and the last new awards were in 2013.

You are correct that millions are going to Renaissance charters. Currently, the Renaissance charters receiving grants are Memphis Street Academy at JP Jones, Mastery Gratz, and Universal Audenried. Mastery Hardy Williams is a fourth local charter reciptient. 

Not sure why there would be any fear of reporting on this issue. I believe Joe Dworetzky raised the question when he was on the SRC of how to handle turnarounds when there was SIG money at stake.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 1, 2015 6:09 am

The questions should be how much was given in total over the past few years?  What was done with the money?  How effective have the schools receiving the money been (better than their predecessors)?  Why the district chose to invest in these schools rather than the other reform methods?  Did the district actually submit the applications for these schools?  Why did almost every other district pursue the transformation model (money stays with the district) rather than the turnaround/renaissance model?  Why wasn't the money used to transform schools into promise academies?  

This is a huge equity issue that seems to be brushed off.  The fear would be that the actual efficacy of the Renaissance program is in question.  In a time when district schools are being starved for resources, certain charter providers were given millions to improve scores.  It makes those schools look like heros and the district (PFT) schools look incompetent.

When I followed your link, the total amount given to Philadelphia schools over the past three years was more than $10,000,000.  Wasn't there more given prior to that?  I can't believe tens of millions of dollars were given away and there has been no outcry.

Submitted by Annoy (not verified) on October 1, 2015 9:43 am

Some SDP neighborhood schools also received SIG money.  Furness recevied about $600,000.  If the Notebook does look into SIG money, it has to look at how all the schools spent the money and what happens next.  

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Submitted by Marlene (not verified) on June 10, 2016 8:48 am

As for me any standards should be adopted to the students' needs and ablities. Evaluation should be based on rating i.e.  best results should be given 100 points irrespective of the number of mistakes. That's would be fair I believe. - some examples of CCSS tests.

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