PSSA scores drop, as expected; Keystones largely flat

The District and others say comparisons to last year's PSSA aren't meaningful because of a new, harder test.

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

Updated | 5:30 p.m.

Student proficiency rates in Philadelphia District schools in math and language arts dropped precipitously on PSSA tests in 2015 from the prior year, reflecting the rollout of a new test and following a statewide trend.

Just 17 percent of students grades 3 through 8 scored proficient in math, down from 46 percent the year before. In language arts, the rates went from 43 percent to 32 percent. Science stayed steady at 37 percent.

In a press release, the District said the new state tests "differ significantly from the tests given in 2014" and are based on "more challenging content and skills." It said that an "apples to apples" comparison is "not appropriate."

On 11th-grade Keystone exams, which did not change, the proficiency rates stayed within a few percentage points in Algebra I, biology, and literature. A District press release said that among first-time test takers, the literature proficiency rates jumped 7 points from 2014.

"The 2015 results are a new baseline to build off as we seek to ensure that all of our students have access to opportunity and are college- and career-ready," said Superintendent William Hite in a statement. "We know that this kind of significant transition will take time and requires investments in teacher training, curricular materials, student tutoring, and other supports."

The new state tests were changed to reflect the Pennsylvania Core standards, which are similar to the national Common Core standards. In math, they require students to understand concepts and explain the reasoning behind how they solved a problem, many of which are anchored in real-world situations. Before, the test mostly contained problems with multiple-choice answers that students could figure out if they had mastered the algorithm.

The results are available school-by-school and grade-by-grade. On the new math PSSA test, half or more of the students scored proficient or advanced In just seven District schools. For English Language Arts, half or more of the students scored proficient in 23 schools.