With a surge in test scores among fifth and eighth graders on last spring's PSSA exam, the School District saw 160 out of 265 schools make "adequate yearly progress," or AYP, this year.
In 2003, only 58 Philadelphia schools made their AYP target - meaning they met the state achievement standards created under the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB).
If schools do not make AYP in consecutive years, they end up in "School Improvement" or "Corrective Action." A year ago, 160 Philadelphia schools were listed in the state's most troubled performance category, known as Corrective Action II, because of failure to make AYP for the previous five consecutive years.
After test score gains last spring, the number of schools listed in Corrective Action II this year is down to 68. Schools in that category are potentially subject to management restructuring this year, which could mean replacing the teaching staff, charter conversion, or privatization.
While making AYP - which is based on test scores, graduation and attendance rates - was good news for the District's 92 other Corrective Action II schools, those schools will have to meet AYP targets again in 2005 or face the same sanctions.
Both the state and the District have downplayed talk of drastic steps at schools in Corrective Action II, although ongoing teachers' contract negotiations have touched on the possible replacement of teaching staffs at schools not meeting NCLB standards.
Success 'across the board'
Success at making adequate yearly progress was "across the board," according to School Reform Commission Chairman James Nevels, who said the improvement "underscores the promise of the partnership management model."
While their overall proficiency levels are still low, more privately managed schools made AYP this year than last, with the targets met at 23 of these 45 schools. Ten of 19 District-run restructured schools met AYP goals. Regular District schools performed better still, with 127 of 201 making AYP.
But barely one-third of high schools and fewer than half of the city's charter schools made AYP.
Current targets are lower
Some observers cautioned against making too much of this year's gains, while one researcher pointed to quirks in AYP standards that benefit small schools and hurt big ones.
Significantly, the state lowered the standard for making AYP this year. Next year the bar will be raised to meet federal requirements for increasing proficiency rates.
In 2004, in order to make AYP, a school had to have 45 percent of students score advanced or proficient in reading, 35 percent at those levels in math, and 95 percent of students had to take the tests. In addition, attendance and graduation rates had to be above 90 percent and 80 percent respectively, or at least improving. Finally, if a school had more than 40 students in a "subgroup" - such as racial groups, special education students, and Limited English Proficient (LEP) students - that subgroup also had to reach the test score goals.
There are two alternative ways for meeting AYP. A school can also meet proficiency goals by reducing the number of students scoring below proficient by 10 percent or more as compared to the previous year. Or a school can make AYP on appeal if it shows significant growth on the "Pennsylvania Performance Index," which measures growth across all performance levels and not just from basic to proficient.
The attendance and graduation requirements were both lower this year than last. Some additional schools reached AYP because the state introduced a statistical adjustment called a "confidence interval," which gives credit to schools that come close to meeting their target.
Statewide, the number of schools making AYP increased by over 600 to 2,444, or 86 percent. State education officials said that fewer than 20 percent of these schools made AYP because of the revised standards.
But the change in standards could still have accounted for the vast majority of the increase in the number of schools making AYP statewide.
Large schools face tough road
Researcher Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University said this year's AYP list also revealed a way in which NCLB requirements puts larger schools at a disadvantage: the larger the school, the more subgroups it has and the more categories in which it has to make AYP.
Balfanz noted that eight of 10 high-poverty middle schools making AYP in Philadelphia were "the smaller high-poverty middle schools." In the smaller schools, if fewer than 40 special education or LEP students are tested, their scores as a group do not impact the school's AYP status.
"In most middle schools, non-special ed students made AYP targets, and special ed and LEP students did not," Balfanz noted. Whether a middle school made AYP or not "was primarily driven by their number of special ed students," he concluded.
Balfanz pointed out that one large middle school, Central East, "saw large gains last year in percent proficient, and its number of students below basic is down to about 35 percent." But he added, "It is deep into Corrective Action II -- even though it made AYP in 25 of 29 categories -- because it fell short in LEP and special ed."
One result of this disparity, Balfanz said, is "a wildly diverse list of schools in the Corrective Action II group, with some of them making significant gains."
School reports on AYP status are available on a state website, www.paayp.com