Thursday, January 11, 2007
By Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Based on results from the first two tests of the school year, a Pittsburgh Public Schools administrator yesterday said she’s cautiously optimistic that students are grasping new curricula designed to boost reading and math proficiency.
In August, the school district introduced new English/language arts curricula in sixth, seventh and eighth grades and English curricula in ninth and 10th grades. It also introduced algebra curricula for middle-grade and high school students and a geometry curriculum in high schools.
New York-based Kaplan K12 Learning Services wrote the curricula and designed tests that teachers must give at six-week intervals to determine whether students are grasping the material.
Kaplan and district officials said the new curricula, a major part of Superintendent Mark Roosevelt’s academic turnaround plan, have been aligned to state reading and math standards to help boost proficiency on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.
On the first Kaplan test, given in October, districtwide scores ranged from an average of 55.8 percent in ninth-grade English to 67.3 percent in eighth-grade English/language arts, according to figures provided by the district.
On the second test, given in December, districtwide scores ranged from an average of 55.4 percent in eighth-grade English/language arts to 71.8 percent in 10th-grade English.
“I was optimistic when I saw the scores. I really thought they would be lower,” said Jerri Lippert, the district’s executive director of professional development.
Asked whether the scores show that students are grasping the new curricula, Dr. Lippert said, “I would say, cautiously, yes.”
Dr. Lippert did not provide a school-by-school breakdown of results, saying they had not been provided to the school board.
The tests, each consisting of 25 multiple choice questions, were designed to see whether students had grasped specific skills covered in class and likely to be seen on the PSSA.
The district wants teachers to use the Kaplan test results to get extra help to lagging students. If many students missed a question, officials want teachers to cover that material again, perhaps with a different approach.
A computerized Kaplan Achievement Planner lets teachers see how a class, or individual students, fared on each question. Teachers also can see school and districtwide averages.
Principals can see districtwide results and scores for every class in their buildings. Administrators can study districtwide trends, such as the performance dip in eighth-grade English/language arts between October and December.
When the next test is given the week of Jan. 21, students in some courses will have essay questions for the first time and 15 more multiple choice questions than before. To gauge retention, material on some tests overlaps.
In all, the district is paying Kaplan $8.4 million to write curricula for 27 middle-grade and high school courses over three years. Students in all of those courses will have the tests, written in the style of the PSSA, every six weeks.
The tests represent 5 percent of students’ quarterly grade and larger percentages of semester or year-end grades. But they’re primarily intended to give teachers feedback, said Seppy Basili, a senior vice president with Kaplan.