The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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October 3, 2013

New way of grading schools launches Friday

HARRISBURG — The state Department of Education is rolling out its revamped system of grading schools today.

One thing will be clear immediately:  The state will be using two grading systems – one for schools with lots of poor students and another for every other school in the commonwealth.

The most rigorous requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law dealt with trying to help schools with large numbers of poor students. But the state previously applied the same assessment requirements to all schools.

When the Corbett administration asked the federal government for permission to change the way the state grades schools, Pennsylvania was granted permission to create a two-tiered grading system.

All schools will be measured on their performance for: closing the achievement gap, graduation rate for high schools or attendance rate for elementary and middle schools, and participation on the state tests.

But only the schools with large numbers of poor students will receive a label if they fail to hit certain targets, said Amy Morton, chief academic officer for the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, based in Montandon, Northumberland County.

Poorly performing poor schools will be designated as “priority” schools.

Pennsylvania spent three years and $2.7 million developing the School Performance Profile system, said Tim Eller, a spokesman in the Department of Education.

Under the old system, the state had adequate yearly progress goals and schools that did not meet those targets were labeled as being in “warning” status, “school improvement” status or “corrective action” status.

Last year, 1,534 schools had AYP ratings of “warning” or worse.

Most educators say the new performance profiles are an improvement over the old way of grading schools.

But the two-tiered system will publicly draw attention to schools with large numbers of poor students.

“I would submit that most people do not know which schools are Title I and which ones are not, but they will now,” said Wesley Knapp, superintendent of the Midd-West School District.  

“I do not like the idea that schools are designated as one type or another, based on the income of the parents.”

Knapp said there is evidence that schools ought to take steps to help poorer students.

“There is no question that kids from poverty score lower on standardized tests,” he said.

Schools have long taken steps to help low-income students while shielding their need for services from other students as much as possible. The state’s strategy for grading schools disregards this courtesy, Knapp said.

Schools in which more than 40 percent of the student population is poor qualify for extra federal funds for reading and math. Those schools are the only schools required to meet the more rigorous federal standards spelled out in No Child Left Behind, Morton said.

Since few high schools apply for the extra federal funding, hardly any must hit the targets established in the new School Performance Profiles.

There are about 3,200 public schools in Pennsylvania, and of those, about 1,900 are subject to the more rigorous rules.

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