PERFORMANCE TARGETS Pa. education: More schools make progress

The state gave more leeway to districts that fell short of the academic standards.
HARRISBURG (AP) -- The state Education Department on Tuesday reported a greater percentage of schools met academic performance targets in math and reading in the past year, but officials said giving the schools more wiggle room to do so this year did not substantially affect the results.
The department's second annual academic achievement report said 2,444 out of 3,009 schools -- more than 80 percent -- made "adequate yearly progress" toward meeting federal mandates for all pupils to perform at grade level in math and reading by 2014.
Last year, the first year in which states were required to compile comprehensive academic achievement reports under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, 1,735 out of 2,786 Pennsylvania schools, or more than 60 percent, made sufficient academic progress.
"We're making progress," said Francis V. Barnes, the department's secretary-designee. "We know that in the schools, teachers are working very hard, and are adamant about leading their children to success."
Determining progress
Adequate yearly progress is defined in large measure by performance on reading and math tests. Pennsylvania requires at least 45 percent of all pupils to perform at grade level in reading, and 35 percent to perform at grade level in math; next year, those targets will increase to 54 percent in reading and 45 percent in math.
This year, however, the state gave more leeway to districts that fell just short of those standards by applying a statistical concept called "confidence intervals," similar to a margin of sampling error in polling.
Only 16 percent of Pennsylvania's schools were considered to be meeting academic standards by virtue of "confidence intervals," and the federal government has permitted at least 26 other states to use them in determining academic progress, Barnes said.
Attendance rates for kindergarten through eighth grade and high-school graduation rates also count toward adequate yearly progress, and this year the state relaxed its requirements for minimum thresholds in both areas.
Last year, both rates were set at 95 percent; this year, the attendance rate is 90 percent and the graduation rate is 80 percent.
About 3 percent of the schools fell short of their academic performance targets last year solely because of their graduation or attendance rates, said Carina Wong, director of the department's division of assessment and accountability.
Pleased with changes
Stinson Stroup, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said school superintendents were grateful for the changes. Some districts reacted to the stricter attendance requirement by relaxing policies that counted extreme tardiness as an absence, Stroup said.
"If they could get a student in there for two minutes, it would count" toward making adequate yearly progress, he said.
But parents should still press schools that benefited from the looser criteria to improve, said Baruch Kintisch, an attorney for the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit legal advocacy group.
Schools that consistently fall short of the standards face consequences of varying severity.
Those consequences range from having to offer parents the option of transferring their children to another public school to requiring the schools to be managed by private companies or convert to charter schools.

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