Monday, November 10, 2014

NASD Schools Pumped Up Their Test Scores

I want to talk about our schools this week, for 3 reasons. One is that the 2013-2014 PSSA test scores were in the news this past week. Another is about the conversations I had about with my neighbors in the 3rd district while working at the polls last Tuesday. The 3rd reason I'll reserve for later in the week.

The Inquirer ran an article last Thursday on the Delaware Valley's test scores and it noted that 2 of our schools, Gotwals and Cole Manor, "showed the biggest increases" (over last year's scores) of any schools in the entire region. So I had to go look for myself.

If you go to, you can look up any public school funded by taxpayer money in PA, regular or charter. It not only gives you test scores but all kinds of demographics, if the teachers are certified, what the promotion and attendance rates are, etc.

I checked out all of our elementary schools, plus Renaissance Academy in Phoenixville where a lot of Norristown students go, and PA Virtual Charter School, a cyber school in King of Prussia. All the schools claimed a 95% or higher attendance rate. All the public schools had a 100% promotion rate--the charter schools don't list a promotion rate.

All of our schools showed at least a percentage point or more gain in at least one area, most in all 3--math, reading and science.

Still, you can't simply compare the charter schools and public schools. Gotwals, for instance, has over 500 students, grades K-4. Renaissance has 999, but they're K-12, 8 more grades. PA Virtual Charter says they have over 2700 students, grades K-12, with 96% attendence. I have to wonder how they could prove that. Anyone can sign on to a computer. Doesn't mean you stick around for lessons, which might explain why PA Virtual Charter had the lowest scores of all the schools I looked up today.

Gotwals's teachers are 100% certified and are considered highly qualified. Charter schools aren't required to hire certified teachers. Renaissance does better than most, with 95% certified and highly qualified.

Demographically, Renaissance students are 19% economically-disadvantaged, compared to 96% at Gotwals. The racial makeup at Gotwals is 33% black, 54% Hispanic, 4% white, and 9% other races. Renaissance is 19% black, 3% Hispanic, 63% white, and 14% other. At Gotwals, 18% of the kids are learning English as a second language. At Renaissance, only 1% are ESL.

But let's compare their scores. Gotwals overall ranking was 87.9, with (rounded) scores of 74 in math, 63 in reading and 85 (!) in science. Renaissance's ranking was 92.5, with 88 math, 86 reading, 77 science. PA Virtual's rank was 63; 57 math, 66 reading, 58 science.

STEM seems to be working, because in science, all but 2 of our regular elementary schools out-performed Renaissance (I love to think we have a town full of budding science geeks). Yet all of our schools all seem to have below average reading scores. The higher ESL ratio would account for only a part of that. Perhaps we need more town-wide literacy projects. How about an annual children's book fest? Some reading challenges with great prizes? Create a culture where reading is more socially acceptable--where the library is a place parents take their kids regularly.

One thing Renaissance has that Gotwals doesn't is a dropout rate. This isn't just parents taking their kids out of Renaissance, but the fact that charter schools can kick students out. A charter school is allowed to say who stays and who goes. They can pick the best and brightest students and reject the discipline problems or non-English speakers or kids with learning disabilities. Basically, they can manipulate their school population until they're assured of producing good test scores, rejecting any students who'll bring their scores down. I'm not saying Renaissance does this, but other charters do. There are no laws in PA saying they can't.

I have to say, though, I think Gotwals and Cole Manor did a phenomenal job in the 2013-14 school year. And our science scores in most of the rest of the district were awesome. Now, let's work on reading.

More on schools later this week.

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