Pennsylvania’s Academic Performance and Implications for Charter School Reform

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The 2011-12 state PSSA results show declines across the board, and fewer districts and schools making Adequate Year Progress.  Here are some key facts concerning this latest development, and what lawmakers can do to help children in the worst-performing schools.

Performance Statewide Declined

Pennsylvania Statewide Test Results
PSSA  Results NAEP Results
Percent Proficient & Advanced Percent Proficient & Advanced
2010-11 2011-12 Change 2009 2011 Change
Math – 4th 85.2 83 -2.2 46 48 2
Math – 8th 76.9 76.4 -0.5 40 39 -1
Math – 11th 60.3 60 -0.3 N/A N/A N/A
Reading – 4th 73.3 72.1 -1.2 37 41 4
Reading – 8th 81.8 79.8 -2 40 38 -2
Reading – 11th 69.1 67.8 -1.3 N/A N/A N/A
  • As a result of lower test scores and increasing requirements under No Child Left Behind, fewer schools and school districts made Adequate Yearly Progress.
  • A widespread cheating scandal may partly explain the drop in PSSA scores in 2011-12.
    • A Philadelphia Inquirer examination of schools under investigation for possible cheating found that almost all of the probed schools saw declines in test scores, in many cases dramatic.
    • A total of 30 schools across Pennsylvania saw a decline of more than 20 percent in their overall proficiency rate in both math and reading.

Increased Spending Has Not Increased Performance

  • Pennsylvania’s average composite SAT score in reading and math has hovered around 995 during that time.
  • The NAEP shows only about 40 percent of 4th and 8th-graders are proficient in reading and math with scores unchanged for nearly 10 years.
  • Increased spending does not guarantee better academic results. A 2010 study from the 21st Century Partnership for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education (21PSTEM) looked at 30 Pennsylvania school districts that improved the most on 11th grade reading and math performance and the 30 districts that declined the most from 2004 to 2010. Schools that declined in performance had higher increases in total per-student spending.

In Our Largest Cities, Charter Schools Outperformed Traditional Schools

In many of the largest, worst-performing districts, charter schools are proving more likely to make AYP.

  • In Philadelphia, 13 percent of district schools made AYP, compared with 53 percent of charter schools.
  • In Pittsburgh, 11 percent of district schools made AYP, compared with 39 percent of charter schools in Allegheny County.
  • In Allentown, 10 percent of district schools made AYP, compared with 50 percent of charter schools in Lehigh County.
  • In Harrisburg, only one of 12 district schools made AYP, compared with one of the two Dauphin County charter schools.
  • In Erie, only one of the 21 district schools made AYP, compared with one of five Erie County charter schools.
  • In Reading, none of the 24 district schools made AYP. Only one charter school served Berks County in 2012; it did not meet AYP requirements.
  • In Scranton, only 12 percent of district schools made AYP. The only charter school in Lackawanna County met AYP.
Percentage of Schools Making AYP, 2011-12
No. That Made AYP No. That Missed AYP Percent
Philadelphia District 33 217 13%
Philadelphia Charter 43 38 53%
Pittsburgh District 6 50 11%
Allegheny Co. Charter 7 11 39%
Allentown District 2 18 10%
Lehigh Co. Charter 2 2 50%
Harrisburg District 1 10 9%
Dauphin Co. Charter 1 1 50%
Erie District 1 20 5%
Erie Charter 1 4 20%
Reading District 0 24 0%
Berks Co. Charter 0 1 0%
Scranton District 2 15 12%
Lackawanna Co. Charter 1 0 100%

Lawmakers Have a Chance to Expand Public School Options

Legislation pending before the General Assembly would reform the state charter school law, including:

  • Creating a statewide board that can authorize new charter schools. Currently, only school districts can approve new brick-and-mortar charter schools (the state handles cyber charters), effectively limiting the options for parents. This is like giving McDonald’s sole authority to approve new Wendy’s locations.
  • Increasing ethics rules and accountability measures for charter school operators.
  • Providing funding for charter schools directly from the state, rather than through school districts.
  • Providing a “parent trigger” whereby parents could convert a failing district school to a charter school. Such measures make schools directly accountable to parents for providing children a quality education. Current legislation would allow this only when 50 percent of parents and 50 percent of teachers support such a conversion. Strengthening such language to allow a group of parents to perform such a turnaround alone would create a meaningful parent trigger.

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Nathan Benefield is director of policy analysis with the Commonwealth Foundation (, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.