B-W School Board Hears Tough News Regarding Progress Levels
The school district falls to the state's 'Warning' level.
A year after seeing each of its tested schools achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP) levels, the Baldwin-Whitehall School Board absorbed the sobering news on Wednesday night that only half of those schools made AYP this year.
Assistant Superintendent Denise Sedlacek made the announcement to the school board at its September agenda meeting, revealing that Whitehall Elementary and Baldwin High schools failed to make AYP and that the B-W School District itself has been saddled with a "Warning" tag by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).
Specifically, Whitehall Elementary hit 17 out of its 19 AYP targets, while Baldwin High hit 12 out of its 15. The B-W schools that made AYP were W.R. Paynter Elementary (13 out of 13 targets) and J.E. Harrison Middle (29 out of 29). (McAnnulty Elementary School students are not tested for AYP.)
In accordance with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the PDE determines AYP performance based on students' scores each year in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams (PSSAs). According to the PDE website, NCLB requires that all students reach at least a proficient level in the subjects of reading/language arts and mathematics by 2014. School districts and schools must show AYP on several measurable indicators, including attendance or graduation rate, academic performance, and test participation.
Reading scores at Whitehall seemed especially hard to swallow for B-W's school directors, as those scores went from 79.2-percent proficiency for all Whitehall students in 2011 down to 74.3 percent in that same large category in 2012. Meanwhile, the AYP standard rose from 72 percent in 2011 to 81 percent this year as it makes its way to 91 percent in 2013 and to 100 percent in 2014.
A sub-group of Whitehall reading students with individualized education programs (IEPs) went from 65.5-percent proficiency in 2011 down to 50.0 percent in 2012, and economically disadvantaged Whitehall students fell from 67.4-percent proficiency in reading to 60.5 percent. (Students labeled as "economically disadvantaged" are those who qualify for a free or reduced lunch program.)
Because of its scores, Whitehall has fallen to the PDE's "School Improvement II" level, meaning that the B-W School District must now offer supplemental education services to offset poor AYP there.
Baldwin High, at a less severe "Warning" level, has another year to achieve AYP before it is subject to consequences.
Baldwin students' overall reading scores fell from 76.5-percent proficiency in 2011 to 75.6 percent this year. And Baldwin's economically disadvantaged students went from 55.7-percent proficiency in reading to 41.0 percent.
The numbers, which have not yet been published on the PDE website, drew sharp reactions from the school board.
"I think it's actually embarrassing, myself," board member Larry Pantuso said after hearing Sedlacek's presentation. "You (Sedlacek) are new in your position, but what's concerning to me is the majority of people in administration have been part of this district for quite a while. And I'm not pointing fingers at anybody ... but whatever role they were in, (they) have ownership of this problem. And it is a problem.
"The board has never been restrictive in providing anything educationally to the teachers that I can ever recall as a resident or as a board member, so something—somewhere—is awry. And I guess, unfortunately, for everybody who sits in administration, you've got a short time to analyze it and get it fixed 'cause this can't go on.
"I think it's absolutely inexcusable. Everybody in the commonwealth plays by the same rules. We might not like the rules, and we might not like the way the game's played. However, that's the game we've gotta play."
Pantuso did not say that a diverse student population could lead to poor scores. Nevertheless, the diversity in Baldwin-Whitehall's student population as not being an excuse for poor scores is supported at least in part by the district's AYP numbers.
For example, neither Whitehall Middle nor Baldwin High had enough non-white PSSA-takers or "English Language Learner" PSSA-takers last year to warrant AYP assessments in those sub-groups for either reading or math.
However, in its most recent rankings report of area school districts, the Pittsburgh Business Times calculated that 31.5 percent of Baldwin-Whitehall students qualify as being economically disadvantaged. The publication states, "It is widely acknowledged that the economic situation of a student is one of the strongest predictors of how well a student will perform academically—a low percentage of economically disadvantaged students generally results in a high percentage of top performances on the state's standardized tests."
On the positive side, every qualifying Harrison Middle and Paynter Elementary reading and math AYP score improved from last year to this year, including jumps for black math students at Harrison from 47.8-percent proficiency to 69.8 percent and for economically disadvantaged Harrison math students from 62.4 percent to 71.0 percent.
"While there's some red (poor numbers) up there," Sedlacek said, "there's a lot of purple (good numbers)."
Board member George L. Pry pointed out that making AYP grows harder and harder for school districts every year as the AYP standard moves toward 100-percent proficiency.
"I'm not defending or pointing fingers either way," Pry said, "but the issue is this is not a stable target. This is a target that is continuing to grow. We are moving up the ladder, but we are not moving up, in some cases, as quickly as we should.
"I am not downgrading the fact that we need to be better, but I'm also not gonna lose sleep over the fact that we're making improvements (but) just not quick enough."
Many board members, such as Nancy Lee Crowder and Kevin J. Fischer, nonetheless stressed the importance of making AYP at all schools regardless of the district's circumstances.
"We've made a lot of effort to make this school district look good," Crowder said. "We need to be good."
Fischer worried that people will dwell on the district's poor numbers rather than the good, or even great, ones.
"While we can all search for the silver linings and say, 'There's a lot of 'purple,'' it's the 'red' that is gonna be what's picked up, what's gonna really define this district," he said. "When the (Pittsburgh) Business Times comes up with its great list, we're gonna be falling down again.
"The flagship school is the high school, and when you see that 'Warning,' it's too late, because (for) those kids, there's no tomorrow. The elementary, the middle, we've got time. The high school, there's no tomorrow for those.
"One year (at AYP) every five or six is not cutting it for this school district. With the amount of tax dollars that people pay to run this school district, they're expecting adequate yearly progress."
Board President John B. Schmotzer instructed Superintendent Dr. Randal A. Lutz to present ideas at the next board meeting (Wednesday, Sept. 12, at the district office at 7:30 p.m.) for improving the district's scores.
Thoughts on how to improve? Do the district's schools need more parental involvement? Better instruction? More resources?
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