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December 19, 2013

Portage tops area schools in new state rankings

PORTAGE — Portage Area High School has come out at the top of area public high schools in the state Department of Education’s inaugural round of School Performance Profiles.

According to data found on its website, PaSchoolPerformance.org, Portage received an overall score of 87.5 out of 100.

Specifically, the school excelled with 100 percent in NOCTI competency scoring, which measures technical school students through exams, an attendance rate of more than 93 percent in 2012 and reading/literature and writing academic growth rates, which compare current and previous standardized exam achievement, at 98.33 and 96, respectively.

“Our writing has always been excellent,” said Superintendent Richard Bernazzoli. “I just attribute that to the staff and the work they’re doing with our kids.”

In the school’s favor, growth rates are the highest-weighted category in the overall calculation, followed by the actual percentage of students scoring proficient or higher on the state’s 2013 standardized exams. Also, schools are now credited for NOCTI scoring within the scope of the new profiles.

The profiles replaced the Adequate Yearly Progress system for measuring student development, which relied mostly on the results of Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams, or PSSAs. Profiles also consider graduation rates, attendance rates, promotion rates and programs for increasing the achievement of all students, especially underperformers.

“It’s a rich overview and it provides more of a snapshot of overall student academic performance or progress in a school district,” Education Department press secretary Tim Eller told The Tribune-Democrat in October, when the department released an initial and incomplete dataset.

“The School Performance Profiles look at a bucket of information.”

Bernazzoli said he prefers the new system over the previous AYP scoring. He said it allows administrators to drill down toward specific problem areas while providing accountability to administrators for district shortcomings.

Comparatively speaking, Bernazzoli acknowledged that the school’s science and biology proficiency score on PSSA and Keystone exams, 70.49, while higher than other state school scores he reviewed, is one area that needs improvement. The percentage of seniors who took the practice SATs, 35.9 percent, is another.

“There could be a monetary thing attached to that. There is no mandate on students taking the PSAT,” he said, noting that the test is paid for by students’ families. “We have discussed at the board level possibly paying for kids to take the PSAT.”

He said the profiles also serve up concrete data that can be easily consumed by parents online. He said he has not heard one complaint from parents who felt the new system was difficult to understand – he said he thinks that’s a good sign.

“(AYP) just seemed too convoluted. ... You got penalized in some areas where I thought you shouldn’t be penalized and you got credit in some areas where you shouldn’t have gotten credit,” he said. “(The profiles neutralize) any bias, anything relating to the poverty of your district, the minority aspect of your district.”

By contrast, Greater Johns-town High School received the lowest overall score of area high schools: 62.4. According to an Associated Press report, Acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq said a score of 70 or higher is the mark of a school that shows improvement. Nearly three-quarters of all state schools hit that mark.

The report also mentions Bethlehem Area Superintendent Joseph Roy’s concerns that the scores draw too much from Keystone proficiencies and are skewed by poverty levels within the district.

Although Greater Johnstown’s roughly $41.7 million total revenue for 2011-2012 surpasses Portage Area’s $11.4 million – the third-lowest revenue figure among Cambria County schools – both districts spend roughly the same per student: $11,719 at Greater Johnstown and $11,005 at Portage Area.

“Just doing the rough calculation, knowing what we were going to score on, we never thought we’d be this high,” Bernazzoli said.

“We were pleasantly surprised, I have to say.”

Justin Dennis covers Portage Area schools for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/JustinDennis.

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