Is Our Kids Learning?

Following multiple reports on student test scores, much has been made about how well Pennsylvania students are performing. In August, Governor Rendell delighted in the results from the PSSA—the state’s standardized test—claiming it shows great improvement under his tenure. He claims that Pennsylvania is “on track” to making every student proficient.

This conclusion deserves scrutiny. Public education is undeniably one of the most important and most expensive government programs in Pennsylvania, and we must carefully examine whether the current education system is delivering on its promises. In the 2004-05 school year, taxpayers spent over $20 billion on the government-run K-12 schools—nearly $4,300 in state and local taxes per household. How is our return on investment?

The Federal “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Act requires all students to be “proficient” at their grade level by 2014. Pennsylvania measures proficiency from PSSA scores, and the state sets goals for “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP)—the percentage of students that should be proficient each year. Statewide, we achieved the 2005-06 goals of 54% proficient in reading and 45% proficient in math at all grade levels. Additionally, the percentage of proficient 5th, 8th, and 11th grade students increased since 2002. So, our schools must be giving us a good bang for our buck, right?

Not necessarily. Consider two things regarding the AYP goals. First, the goals for 2005-06 were below what Pennsylvania students achieved in 2002, when the requirements were created. It is relatively easy to reach a low standard we already surpassed. Yet despite our “success”, 35% of eleventh grade students cannot read at their grade level and 48% are below proficient in math.

Second, while we are “on pace” in our AYP goals, this pace calls for a dramatic finish. Pennsylvania’s targets increase from 35% proficiency in math and 45% in reading in 2002 to 100% in 2014. However, two-thirds of this improvement is expected to occur in the last four years. The goals are heavily back-loaded—perhaps in the hopes that NCLB requirements will be replaced by that time by the next fad in public education reform.

There are additional reasons to question the success of our public schools. First, at both the state level and in local districts, proficiency rates get worse as our children get older, bottoming out on the 11th grade test. The more time students spend in public schools, the further behind they fall.

Second, statewide results mask problems in local schools. In Philadelphia, only 27% of 11th graders are proficient in math and 33% in reading. Harrisburg City schools are even worse—only 15% of students are proficient in 11th grade math and 28% in reading.

Additionally, our state standards may not be that strong to begin with. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, used to evaluate state standards, Pennsylvania students score much worse. In 2005, 8th grade students took both the PSSA and the NAEP, yet while the PSSA indicates a majority of students were proficient (64% in reading, 63% in math), the NAEP results indicate that most students in Pennsylvania were below their grade level (only 36% proficient in reading and 31% in math). Further, a recent report by the Fordham Foundation gives Pennsylvania a “D” in state education standards.

Other indicators also indicate a need for improvement in our schools. A recent report from the Manhattan Institute indicates that Pennsylvania’s real graduation rate is 81% (as opposed to the reported 87%), but only 40% of students graduated ready for college in 2002. And Pennsylvania continues to rate near the bottom in SAT scores, finishing 47th among the states in average total score in 2006.

Pennsylvania spends more on public education, per-student, than all but five other states (adjusting for cost of living differences), and ranks 4th in average teacher salary. Taxpayers spent about $11,000 per public school student in 2004-05, an increase of 46% in eight years.

Clearly, more dollars have failed to produce more scholars in Pennsylvania. While our investment in public schools continues to escalate, the effect on student learning remains negligible. We should not be celebrating marginal improvement in test scores while tens of thousands of children are left behind. It is clear that without substantive reform of our school system, we will never achieve the level of performance our parents and communities demand and children deserve.

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Nathan A. Benefield is a Policy Analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute located in Harrisburg, PA.