First pandemic state test results paint a somber picture for Pittsburgh Public Schools

Lower testing scores were expected due to COVID-19 disruption

By Mary Niederberger —

Standardized test scores for the 2020-2021 school year, released by the state Department of Education today, show proficiency rates in English language arts, math and science are down significantly across the Pittsburgh Public School district, in some cases between 20 to 30 percentage points. 

Todays’ release marks the first since the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in March 2020 and scores were long-expected to be low throughout the state. National reports based on assessment information provided by districts last spring and fall indicated students had fallen behind academically during the pandemic. 

As in past years, Pittsburgh students continue to struggle with math, with Black students struggling more than white students districtwide. In two schools, Banksville K-5 and Mifflin K-8, none of the Black students scored proficient in math. 

Third grade reading proficiency was down in all  but a handful of schools. Reading proficiently by third grade is essential for students to be successful in later grades when they need to be able to read to complete coursework. 

Of the district’s elementary schools, 21 saw a drop in third grade reading scores with the steepest declines at Fulton K-5 and Grandview K-5. Fulton’s proficiency rate plummeted 35 percentage points to 37% of students, while Grandview’s plunged 34 percentage points to just 8% of students testing proficient or above. 

Three elementary schools saw slight increases in third grade proficiency and Minadeo PreK-5 saw a significant boost in third grade reading proficiency, more than doubling its percentage to 52%. 

The test scores also show there continues to be wide academic achievement gaps across the district between Black and white students. Colfax K-8 students showed some of the highest proficiency rates – exceeding the state standards in English, math and science. But the school posted large gaps in performance between Black and white students with nearly 53 percentage points in English, 51 in math and nearly 61 in science.

“This means we need more supports and lots of summer programming. We need every kid to be learning something this summer because they are behind,” said James Fogarty, executive director of A+Schools advocacy group. 

“This data lets us know within Pittsburgh where we need to target resources and support and where we need to support the teachers and connect those buildings with community partners who can help the children and their families,” Fogarty said. 

The scores released today were based on students’ performance on the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment and Keystone exams for the 2020-2021 school year. The PSSAs are given annually in English and math in grades 3-8 and in science in grades 4 and 8. The Keystone exams in English literature, algebra I and biology are given as end-of-course exams to secondary students. 

Across the state scores are down, with over all declines in both math and English language arts.

“It is improper to compare 2020-2021 results with previous years due to a variety of conditions exacerbated by the pandemic,” PPS spokeswoman Ebony Pugh wrote in an email, “We remain focused on accelerating learning and addressing the unfinished learning of students.”

Districts received a waiver from administering the annual exams in spring 2020, when schools were closed in mid-March. Previously, the most recent  posted results were from the 2018-2019 school year. 

“These standardized test results confirm what we already know: that Pennsylvania’s students are still recovering academically, socially and emotionally from the effects of the pandemic,”  Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey said in a statement. 

Askey noted that state legislation will prevent the results from being used for teacher evaluations or pushing back the timeline for state graduation requirements. 

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis was not available for comment on the Pittsburgh district results.

In the 2020-2021 school year, districts were given the option to administer the tests as usual in the spring or wait until fall. Because Pittsburgh students learned online for nearly all of the 2020-2021 school year, district officials chose to administer the exams when students returned to class in September. 

It was predicted that scores statewide would be lower than the previous years given the upending of education that has taken place during the pandemic, with many students learning either online or via hybrid schedules. In the Pittsburgh district, students learned from paper packets in the spring of 2020 after schools were closed in mid-March. The next school year, most Pittsburgh students were online for the full year, with the exception of some groups that returned to classrooms for a few days in the spring. 

In releasing the scores, Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Sherri Smith said via a press release that historically state standardized test scores “have been an important part of understanding school performance and our work to close achievement gaps.” But, she said, the 2020-2021 results “are anything but typical.”

She cautioned against interpreting the results given the fact that districts gave the tests at different times – spring and fall – which reduced student participation rates. “Given the circumstances, the results should not be viewed as a complete, representative sample of all students in the commonwealth, nor should a single assessment during an atypical school year be considered a true metric of student performance,” Smith said in the press release. 

Pittsburgh Interim Superintendent Wayne Walters had expressed concern, based on in-district fall assessments, about third grade reading scores during a November interview with the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. 

“I know that foundational reading is critical. Third grade is the first time we are assessing that,” Walters said. He indicated at the time the district would wait for the PSSA results before moving forward with plans to address third grade reading.  

Fogarty said it should come as no surprise that last year’s third graders were not reading proficiently. “Third grade was completely online and a chunk of second grade was lost [for those students],” Fogarty said. “I don’t see us bouncing back from that within two to three years.”

Students who can’t read by third grade often struggle academically and are four times more likely to drop out of school, according to national studies

Fogarty suggested the district and the state should consider placing interventions at the upper grades – including training teachers above the third grade level how to teach the basics of phonics and literacy acquisition since so many students are behind. 

“Data means something. We shouldn’t be sweeping things under the rug. We should be talking about how bad things are and how to fix it,” Fogarty said. “No one group, no one set of factors are to blame. But now you need to find solutions.”

Statewide test results reported by district can be found at the Future Ready PA Index.

Mary Niederberger can be reached at & on Twitter @MaryNied.

This story is a part of PLAYING THE LONG GAME: Rebounding from unfinished learning, an on going series about pandemic learning in Pittsburgh made possible by support from The Grable Foundation.


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