Gains in PSSA not mirrored in District NAEP results

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Mirroring national trends, Philadelphia reading and math scores rose slightly in 4th grade but stayed flat in 8th grade in the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for urban districts. The 4th grade math increase was statistically significant.

Even with the slight improvement, Philadelphia students continued to score lower than the average for large cities in the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA. And lower percentages of students reach proficiency on NAEP than they do on Pennsylvania’s achievement test, the PSSA. The results raise questions about the rigor of the state exam and the meaning of the District’s highly-touted increases on that test.

Though there was a statistically significant gain between 2009 and 2011 in only one of the four areas measured, District officials said they were not discouraged by the results.

“The best news is of course that grade 4 reading and math are both showing gains,” said Dan Piotrowski, the executive director of accountability and assessment.

He noted that while the 8th grade scores were flat, they are higher relative to other large cities than the 4h grade scores. He said that Philadelphia is “in the middle of the pack” among cities considered comparable, including New York, Washington, Atlanta, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Boston, and Cleveland.

Overall, Philadelphia does better than only five other big cities: Milwaukee, Detroit, Baltimore, Fresno, and Cleveland.

“I think the bigger issue for us is always to take a step back and…concentrate on where we are and what these tests show us,” he said. “They show us we are not doing everything we ought to be doing.”

He acknowledged that Pennsylvania probably needs to take a look at its standards. But rather than focus on differences between PSSA and NAEP, he said, “If we see a curriculum or standards disconnect, we should be addressing it not necessarily so that the students do better on NAEP, but that they are getting everything they need to prepare for high school and college and further on.”

Other interesting trends:

  • In math, scores for boys and girls are about the same. But in reading in both grades, girls significantly outscored boys. Eighth grade reading scores for girls were 15 points higher than for boys; in 4th grade, the gap was 14 points.
  • Philadelphia’s racial achievement gaps, though considerable, were for the most part narrower than in comparable cities.
  • Eighth graders were asked if they read on their own time for fun. Twenty-five percent said “never or hardly ever” while only 13 percent said “nearly every day.”

Philadelphia first began participating in TUDA in 2009. The Department of Education, which administers NAEP, began breaking out the scores of urban districts in 2002. There are now 21 participating cities.

Unlike the PSSA, in which every student is tested, NAEP tests a scientifically selected sample. In Philadelphia, 1,600 of 12,000 4th graders were tested and 1,200 of 10,000 8th graders.

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