Suburban Allegheny County leads state in standardized test score improvement

Suburban schools in Allegheny County earned high marks in the most recent state standardized tests — and officials credit part of the success to partnerships between districts sharing resources.

After scores plummeted statewide on last year’s Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) reported increased exam results for 2016 in all schools in its jurisdiction, which includes all districts in Allegheny County other than Pittsburgh Public Schools. 

Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Education released results for the 2016 PSSAs, which show students in the AIU’s 42 member schools exhibited higher net gains in 12 of 14 tests than peers across the state.  

Of those 42 school districts, 37 produced double-digit gains on one or more exam.

Dr. Linda B. Hippert, executive director of AIU, paints the revised 2015 PSSA exam as a pilot year, noting that 2016 is the first year the state could be fully prepared to align with rigorous new PA Core standards.

“Last year there was a drop in scores because there was a very short window to align [with PA Core],” said Hippert. “It was the foundation year.”

Through merging schools’ curriculum, instruction and assessments with PA Core standards, suburban schools under AIU performed exceptionally well on all three categories of exams in grades 3 through 8 — including mathematics, science and English language arts (ELA) — according to Hippert.

Hippert says that critical thinking skills are more embedded in each content area and the way students learn has also changed, especially through teacher development and training.

“Because the kinds of questions that are asked on PSSAs have changed, we encourage changing everyday unit assessments in the classroom so it’s more aligned to the types of questions asked on the PSSA,” said Hippert.

standardized tests
Image courtesy of Allegheny Intermediate Unit

This has involved shuffling resources around in schools but has ultimately led to a tight curriculum, even in less advantageous schools, said Hippert.

“Something that is really important to note is that some districts who don’t have as many resources are showing gains and that is extremely positive,” she said.

In third-, fourth- and fifth-grade English language arts assessments, for example, Allegheny County exhibited double-digit percentage gains compared to the state average.

Notably, Cornell School District showed a 21.8 point gain and McKeesport a 12.1 point gain for fourth-grade ELA results.

Partnerships between higher and lower socioeconomic districts have led to these increases, according to Hippert.

Hippert credits county teachers for swiftly switching gears and coordinating classroom activities with PA Core and the new PSSA exam.

“When we’re getting kids excited about being in school and engaging in activities that they weren’t doing before, their ability to read, do math and perform in traditional classes expands as well.”

While the net gains are commendable, Hippert notes that the PSSA is just one measure of success in K-12 education. Moving forward, continual training and development will ensure the results continue to climb.

“This is a measure of how good we did in one year. I think we’ll get better next year,” said Hippert.