A+ Schools: Achievement gap grows

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In 2010 when A+ Schools released their annual report on the Pittsburgh Public School District, the organization said at its current pace, the achievement gap between Black and White students would take 40 years to close. Last year, due to a sharp decrease in the achievement gaps in both reading and math, they predicted the gap could be eliminated in just 24 years.

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MOVING FORWARD—Superintendent Linda Lane fields questions from the audience. (Photo by Gail Manker)

On Nov. 12, A+ released their most recent report with some unsettling news. Mirroring an overall decline in student achievement across the district, A+ found that over the past year, the achievement gap had actually widened.

“This past year, because of the dip in scores, we saw that the achievement gap widened in reading and math,” said Carey Harris, executive director of A+. “We know that this gap is not the inevitable outcome of poverty. We have schools that are closing this gap.”

A+ School’s 2012 Report to the Community on Public School Progress in Pittsburgh uses data from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests to monitor trends in student achievement. The report examines enrollment, graduation rates and the achievement gap across each individual school.

The report stated that the percentage of White students scoring proficient or advanced in reading was nearly 80 percent compared to nearly 50 percent for Black students. The percentage of White students scoring proficient or advance in math was less than 80 percent while Black students were slightly more than 50 percent.

At 31.9 percent, the achievement gap in reading grew by 1.3 percentage points since last year when it dropped by 3 percentage points. The achievement gap in math grew by 3.6 percentage points between 2011 and 2012 and is larger than it has been over the past four years.

The widening achievement gap reflects an overall decline in student achievement across the state and the Pittsburgh Public School District’s failure to make adequate yearly progress as defined by the U.S. Department of Education. However, there were academic achievement gains made at some grade levels.

In reading, between 2009 and 2012, district-wide gains in grades 6-8 and 11 exceeded overall gains across the state by 4.8 and 3.5 percentage points respectively. Gains were also made in math at the 6-8 grade level.

“Admittedly the things that were discouraging were probably more prevalent, but we had schools that made AYP this year that weren’t even recognized,” said Superintendent Linda Lane at the A+ presentation.

Lane listed several factors that might have made an impact on the overall drop in achievement including, teachers worried about being furloughed, the elimination of funding for the 4Sight Test used to assess student progress during the year, less funding overall throughout the district, and teacher nervousness around PSSA testing due to nationwide reports of cheating. While focusing on the impact teachers have in the classroom, she also brought up the district’s desire to include teacher effectiveness measures in furlough decisions, a request that was denied by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers earlier this year.

“We believe there is a causal relationship between teaching and learning and if we don’t believe that we’re in the wrong business,” Lane said.

Despite some of the gains made over the past year, the report revealed additional gaps between Black and White students. While 77 percent of White students had qualifying grade point averages for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship, only 39 percent of Black students did, down 4 percentage points from 43 percent last year.

“We’re not going to let one year that was off define us,” said Nina Esposito Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. “We refuse to be disheartened and we are regrouping and refocusing our efforts.”

The audience also heard from a member of the A+ student organization Teen Block, who organized last year to advocate for changes they believed would increase student achievement. Among these changes were for teachers to maintain high expectations for every students regardless of race or socio economic status.

“I was really disappointed. We came last spring and did a lot to make sure this didn’t happen,” said Jordan Brooks, a CAPA student. “I know some students who even in the same classrooms were treated differently.”

The district will also be hosting a presentation on the most recent data and the district’s progress on Nov. 15. The first State of the District Community Event will be held at CAPA High School.

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