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A new state system puts less emphasis on standardized tests. How will Harrisburg schools fare?

File photo by Dani Fresh

Pennsylvania is changing the way it grades its public schools, which may be good news for the Harrisburg City School District.

This Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf signed off on a 144-page education improvement plan that deemphasizes test scores and creates a new index for assessing school performance.

The state Department of Education wrote the plan to bring Pennsylvania into compliance with the “Every Student Succeeds Act.” ESSA, which replaced “No Child Left Behind” as the federal education law in 2015, gives states more flexibility in how they govern schools.

With that discretion, many states, including Pennsylvania, are choosing to evaluate schools based on student growth rates rather than student proficiency.

What does that mean in plain English? Essentially, schools will be graded by how much students learn over time – not by how they score on tests.

Pennsylvania’s new education plan introduces the Future Ready PA Index — a report card system that evaluates schools on dozens of performance indicators. The index won’t take effect until fall 2018, but the plan says it will “emphasize student growth measures that are less sensitive to out of school factors.”

This new evaluation method could reap favorable returns in Harrisburg. The city’s school district consistently logs some of the lowest test scores in the county, and appears at the bottom of statewide rankings every year. When evaluated by its student growth rate, however, a slightly different picture emerges.

Harrisburg students progress by an average of 4.3 academic years in the five years between third grade and eighth grade, according to a recent study from Stanford University. That doesn’t help most Harrisburg students achieve state proficiency standards in math or reading, but it does show that they learn at a rate that’s equal or faster than students in wealthier districts nearby.

Central Dauphin School District, for example, has a median income of $72,000 per year – three times that of Harrisburg’s reported $24,000. While Central Dauphin students achieve higher standardized test scores than their peers in Harrisburg, they progress at a slightly lower rate: 4.2 grade levels in 5 years. In Susquehanna Township, where the median annual income is $63,000, students have the same 4.3-year growth rate as Harrisburg students.

“This data tweaks conventional wisdom in many ways,” Emily Badger wrote in the New York Times about the Stanford study. “Some urban and Southern districts are doing better than data typically suggests. Some wealthy ones don’t look that effective. Many poor school systems do.”

Indeed, the study results show that districts lauded for high test scores may be less competitive in rankings based on growth. Meanwhile, a district such as Harrisburg may move from the bottom of the pack to somewhere closer to the middle.

In 2013, the Harrisburg school district adopted a five-year recovery plan aimed at narrowing the disparity between student test scores and state standards. In Harrisburg schools, the average student tests 3.2 years behind grade level in the third grade, according to Stanford University data.

While the district has a long way to go before it closes that gap entirely, Chief Recovery Officer Audrey Ultey said that growth data tells them they’re on the right track.

“Students are growing at a faster rate,” Utley said. “They’re not meeting targets in the recovery plan and are below state averages in proficiency, but we have, in the last two years, seen some growth in closing that gap.”

Utley knows that the district’s current growth rate needs to increase. Ideally, students would achieve at least one year of growth for every year they are in school, she said.

Even so, Utley reported that the district’s growth rate has increased under the recovery plan, since the district adopted a unified curriculum with benchmark assessments. These structured learning goals help teachers assess student needs and develop individualized learning plans for students with gaps in their education.

Utley said that proficiency measures are still important, since students and teachers need a goal to guide their work. Jaime Foster, the district’s chief curriculum officer, added that student performance on standardized tests dictates annual revisions to the curriculum.

However, state evaluations based on performance can stack the deck against urban districts, which have higher rates of poor and non-English speaking students. In Harrisburg, one of the greatest detriments to student test scores is the rate of transient students. Utley estimated that the district has a 25-percent turnover rate among its pupils.

Both Utley and Foster hope that the state’s new priorities will help teachers assess their effectiveness in the classroom and encourage disadvantaged students as they progress through school.

“Growth has a greater impact because a student will be able to see how they go from one point to another over time,” Foster said. “With growth, the sky is the limit.”

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