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The health of a school is like the health of a person.

No single measurement can pinpoint a condition or help develop a treatment plan.

“You go to the doctor’s office and get all kinds of checks,” said Michael Gogoj, director of curriculum and instruction for Carlisle Area School District.

“One number doesn’t tell a story, but if you have the blood pressure, the cholesterol and body mass index, then you have information you can use to make decisions.”

Gogoj was comparing the Future Ready PA Index, launched by Pennsylvania in 2018, to past methods used to assess the performance of public education in Pennsylvania. Experts say methods like the School Performance Profile relied too much on data from a single high-stakes standardized test given on one day during the course of an academic year.

Broader approach

“Pennsylvanians wanted a more holistic tool for evaluating schools,” said Eric Levis, press secretary for the state Department of Education. “In 2015, Gov. Wolf charged the department with developing a new school measurement tool that would include a broader set of meaningful indicators.”

Over a period of three years, PDE leaders met with educators, parents, advocates, policymakers and business leaders to determine how the new tool should look, Levis said. The result was the Future Ready Index that lists indicators in three categories: State assessment measures, on-track measures and college and career measures.

The first category looks at academic proficiency as measured on the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment tests given to students in grades 3-8 and the Keystone Exams given in high school. It compares the percentage of students in each school who score proficient or advanced to an annual statewide average and to a statewide goal set for 2030. It also looks at whether students in each school are achieving growth standards in each grade and subject area.

The second category, on-track measures, compares student attendance rates to a statewide average. It also looks at the proficiency rates of students in grade 3 reading and grade 7 math. Research has shown a correlation between student performance and future academic success in those two grade levels and subject areas.

The third category tracks student exposure to rigorous courses of study and to college and career activities and experiences by grades 5, 8 and 11. The category also compares the graduation rate of a high school to a state average and charts the breakdown percentage of graduating seniors who enter the workforce, enlist in the military or enroll in an institution of higher education.

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“The index recognizes that students, and the schools that serve them, are more than just results on standardized tests,” Levis said. The collection of indicators helps to demonstrate how well schools are preparing students for post-secondary success, he said.

New direction

“Educators in Pennsylvania view the index as an important step in the right direction,” said Chris Lilienthal, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the union representing 181,000 teachers and pupil services specialists statewide. “It replaces a system heavily focused on standardized test scores with multiple measures to track student achievement.”

The index was born of a process where experts with classroom experience and knowledge of how students learn had a seat at the table, Lilienthal said. PSEA members view the index as a fairer method because it places a greater weight on identifying areas of academic growth and progress in schools where there is a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students, he said.

“It levels the playing field for districts of all different sizes, resources and demographics,” said Fred Withum III, superintendent of the Cumberland Valley School District.

Gogoj agreed. “What it’s trying to do is shine a light on different parts of a school and a district rather than give a summative number or grade,” he said. “It allows the reader to make some judgments.”

Unlike previous methods, the index uses a dashboard approach to show performance trends among different groups including English language learners, students with disabilities and students from different ethnic groups.

“Compared to where we were as a state, it’s absolutely an improvement,” said Richard Fry, superintendent of Big Spring School District and president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. Fry called the index “a bit more holistic” in that it lends some focus to career and life readiness that was much needed.

While the process has evolved, the index still relies too much on standardized test scores for grades three to eight, Fry said. He would prefer the state put more trust in school districts to develop and pursue a local accountability model to frame their own set of expectations and core principles.

“Districts can’t do that on their own,” Fry said on developing the model. “The state would have to give us some flexibility. It would probably take a cohort of districts to come together and look at different ways we are going to measure. It’s going to be more qualitative than quantitative.”

States like Massachusetts, Texas and Vermont are taking the lead in formulating a local accountability model for school districts to use, Fry said. Big Spring drew upon the input of its residents to help administrators develop a Profile of a Graduate that defined career pathways based on what the community values, he added.

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Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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