Research group calls for revisions to Pa. school quality index

 Students participate in a world history class at Central High School. (NewsWorks file photo)

Students participate in a world history class at Central High School. (NewsWorks file photo)

Does Pennsylvania’s school rating system make the grade?

In a recent brief, Research for Action argues that the state’s School Performance Profile index leaves much to be desired.

Under former Gov. Tom Corbett, the Pennsylvania Department of Education introduced the SPP scale in 2013 as a replacement for Adequate Yearly Progress. It scores every school on a 100-point scale using a metric reliant on state standardized tests for 90 percent of its tally.

Federal guidelines have mandated state accountability indices for schools for more than two decades. And 2001’s No Child Left Behind calls for each state to publish an annual school report card.

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Proponents of the current SPP system argue that it offers a clear numerical rating that holds all schools equally accountable for their efforts to imbue students with the skills needed to evidence mastery of the state’s academic expectations.

Opponents argue that SPP’s heavy emphasis on state tests blurs what could be a more nuanced portrait of school worth. They argue that SPP offers little but a codified way to shame schools with high concentrations of impoverished students with deep special-education needs.

A previous RFA report found that – even when analyzing growth measures – low SPP scores were strongly correlated to student poverty.

Since entering office, Gov. Tom Wolf has frequently stated his desire to create a more holistic school quality metric, but his attempt to revise the system remains ongoing.

“Representatives from PDE have been visiting the state’s intermediate units where they are meeting publicly with lawmakers, advocates, educators and administrators, around what measures would make the SPP a better evaluation tool,” wrote state Department of Education spokeswoman Nicole Reigelman.

After analyzing practices in Pennsylvania’s neighboring states, as well as those with leading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, RFA advocates a few specific changes.

Namely, RFA calls for less emphasis on state tests, as well as the inclusion of demographic data in order to make peer comparisons among schools serving similar student populations.

“A school profile could account for factors outside of the measures that are included [in SPP] by comparing schools that serve similar sets of students based on demographics like the percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, ELL students, special education students,” said RFA researcher Mark Duffy. “So you’re really comparing apples to apples.”

RFA’s report highlights the Philadelphia School District’s School Progress Report metric as a possible model for the state. SPR compares schools to all others with the same grade configurations, as well as to those in similar peer groups determined by student population.

In addition to categories for academic performance, progress, and college and career, SPR also factors in school culture – which counts attendance, student retention, suspensions, as well as student and parent perceptions of school safety and parent engagement.

As the district’s chief performance officer, Jura Chung was an architect of the SPR. In a telephone interview, she praised its ability to provide a much richer, more prudent snapshot of school quality.

Chung said the tool was developed after a series of conversations with district educators.

“We often heard from principals, ‘Hey, you know, it doesn’t really feel fair that you’re comparing me to the Mastermans or the Centrals because I’m a neighborhood school and I don’t get to have a special admission criteria,'” said Chung.

Chung hopes the state Department of Education’s potential revision of SPP will pivot towards the district’s lead.

“We continue to have conversations with the state in how we can enhance their tool and possibly get to a point of convergence – where some of the attributes that we’re really proud of in the SPR might be adopted or could potentially be incorporated into the SPP,” she said.

State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, did not return a request for comment about RFA’s recommendations.

Smucker has championed a bill which would allow the state to take over schools that chronically score in the lowest percentiles of SPP rankings.

In Philadelphia – where schools have been run by the state-created-and-controlled School Reform Commission since 2001 – nearly 100 schools fall in the bottom 5 percent of SPP.

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