PSSA scores up slightly in District; biggest gains in early grades

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

Updated with quote from Read by 4th

The Pennsylvania Department of Education released the 2017 PSSA scores today, and Philadelphia showed marginal gains across almost all subjects and grades. The biggest jumps were in 3rd- and 4th-grade English Language Arts, indicating that the city and District’s campaign for early literacy is having an impact.

In most cases, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced fluctuated only by a point or two from year to year. But for 3rd-grade reading, it increased by 5 percentage points, from 30 to 35 percent. Fourth-grade reading proficiency went from 28 percent to 31 percent, a 3-point gain.

Overall, math PSSA scores had the same minor fluctuations, but there were no big jumps in 3rd and 4th grades. Proficiency rates in almost all grades are lower in math than in language arts, with less than 20 percent of 3rd through 8th graders scoring proficient or advanced.

High school students made significant gains in the Keystone biology exam, increasing proficiency rates from 23 to 29 percent. Literature scores also showed improvement, from 38 to 43 percent. Algebra gains were smaller, from 19 to 21 percent.

District officials touted the results as "steady, in some areas significant, gains," and cited them as evidence supporting the investments and priorities of Superintendent William Hite.

"Students are making progress, and that’s because of the tremendous work happening in schools by teachers and administrators, and it’s also a result of our focus on instruction, particularly in the early grades around literacy," Hite said in an interview. "While we have a long way to go still, that we’re seeing progress where we have focused attention, that’s encouraging and very exciting for us."

Hite also emphasized that fewer students are scoring at the lowest level, below basic. "There is a large number of children no longer at the lowest level, although not yet proficient," he said. "The whole trend for us is moving in a positive direction."

While indicating progress, the results show that Philadelphia still lags significantly behind the state numbers, which is not a surprise because the city educates a far higher proportion of students with complex needs – those who live in deep poverty, suffer from trauma, or are English language learners, or some combination of those, for example.

Statewide, nearly 65 percent of 3rd graders and 61 percent of 4th graders scored proficient in reading. But Philadelphia’s gains compared to 2016 tracked or exceeded those of the state in most areas.

Among subgroups, proficiency rates for African American and Hispanic 3rd graders increased by 4 percentage points, and males improved by 6 points.

Hite pointed out that huge jumps from year to year are not expected and "communicate something different," i.e., the possibility of cheating. "You don’t get to 100 percent overnight," he said.

Other points emphasized by the District in commenting on the results include a reduction in below-basic rates in algebra and biology, fewer below-basic students from 3rd through 7th grade, and improvements among male students and those in special education.

The early literacy initiatives in the District include improved and expanded teacher training, better assessments that allow teachers to keep track of individual student progress, early literacy coaches in many classrooms, "leveled libraries" that allow students to pick out books that are at their reading level and aspire to move up to the next one, and a 120-minute daily literacy block. In eight schools with particularly low scores, the District invested in more books, technology, and learning tools.

Partners in the city’s early literacy campaign include Read by 4th, the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, the Free Library, and several foundations, including William Penn and Lenfest.

Jenny Bogoni, executive director of Read by 4th and an executive of the Free Library, said that "all of us at Read by 4th are heartened by the progress" in the results and praised the "strategic and systemic investments … in early literacy." She said that Read by 4th partners would work to "continue building the momentum" around the core ideas of the initiative: supporting school readiness, home libraries, attendance, quality instruction, working with students to prevent "summer slide" and Reading Captains in communities.

Notebook reporter Greg Windle contributed to this story.

The results confirm that the District’s Read by 4th program, which invests millions into early literacy curriculum and teacher training, is money well spent.