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TerraNova scores reach plateau

Two sets of scores, finally released, leveled off in 2006

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Two sets of 2006 test results recently released by the School District show that Philadelphia's achievement scores appear to be flattening after three consecutive years of strong increases.

“Are we concerned? We're concerned when we don't get strong growth every year,” said District CEO Paul Vallas.

“We are happy with the progress we've seen since 2002,” he added.

The District administered the TerraNova, a national standardized test, to students in grades 1, 2, 9, and 10 in spring 2006. Last fall, the TerraNova was given to grades 3 through 10. Students are tested in reading, language arts, mathematics, and science.

Neither set of results showed a continuation of the steady upward trend in student scores seen in Philadelphia from 2002 to 2005. But where there were declines, they were generally modest.

The District was unusually slow in releasing both of these latest sets of test scores to the public.

Results from the spring 2006 TerraNova showed a decline in performance compared to the prior year in most grades and subject areas – the first time that happened on a major standardized test here since 2002.

Only in grade 10 did students show slight gains across the board in the percentage of students scoring above the national average.

Compared to spring 2005, more students in spring 2006 scored near the bottom on the TerraNova. The number of students who scored in the lowest quartile grew by two to four percentage points in each of the tested subjects for grades 1, 2, and 9.

The District held onto the spring TerraNova scores for more than six months before posting them without fanfare on the Web in early 2007. District officials said that the scores were not deliberately concealed, explaining that the spring results covered only four grades, and that their significance paled in comparison to the results of the state standardized test, the PSSA, received by the District around the same time as the TerraNova results last summer. PSSA results announced at a press conference last July, while mixed, went up in a majority of grades and subjects.

Mixed results were seen again on the fall 2006 TerraNova scores, released in February. Significant gains in some grades were balanced by declines in others. Combining all the fall 2006 results from grades 3 through 10, scores were up slightly in reading compared to 2005, but were down slightly in math and language arts. Science scores, which have generally been the poorest, were not released by the District with the other subjects.

Release of the fall 2006 scores also came late. According to District assessment experts, the results led to a review and determination by the District and its testing company that the previous fall's scores – the point of comparison – were not valid.

To ramp up achievement levels, CEO Vallas targeted improved professional development and better use of instructional time in the last two months of the school year as two strategies for the District to pursue.

Jolley Bruce Christman of Research for Action, which just produced an analysis of several years of Philadelphia test results (see analysis here), noted that it is common to see test scores level off after a few years of gains, and agreed that the District should examine its professional development.

“Teachers need to know both more about what it is they're teaching and more about how their students learn in order to really take their students' learning and achievement to the next level,” Christman said.

She stressed that resources will be required to support teachers. “The kind of reforms that will maintain the improvements the District has made are going to cost money,” she said.

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Paul is the Notebook's former editor and publisher and also one of its founders in 1994.