State hits ‘home run’ for student achievement

Thursday, August 20, 2009
By Tracie Mauriello and Eleanor Chute, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HARRISBURG — In the midst of a budget impasse over how much the state should spend on education, Pennsylvania has received accolades for improvement in its state test scores.

Pennsylvania is the only state in which student performance on its own tests has improved in elementary, middle and high school grade levels in both reading and math as well as at three achievement levels — basic, proficient and advanced — for at least 2002 to 2008, according to a report released yesterday by the Center on Education Policy, an independent public school advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Gov. Ed Rendell used the good news about test scores to stump for his education spending plan. “We need to keep moving forward,” he said during a rally in the Capitol rotunda. “We can’t stop now.”

The governor was joined by Jack Jennings, president and chief executive officer of CEP, and comedian and longtime education supporter Bill Cosby.

CEP’s conclusion is based on a study of results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment math and reading tests given from 1999 through 2008 for grades 8 and 11 and from 2006 through 2008 for grade 4.

“Pennsylvania is unique in that it has across-the-board gains, all [three] grades, all achievement levels in reading and math,” said Mr. Jennings. “Other states did not have a complete home run.”

Each state gives different state tests, some easier and some harder than others.

“We don’t reach a conclusion to say Pennsylvania is No. 1 in the country in achievement because every state has a different test, ” Mr. Jennings said.

The study also did not examine the causes of Pennsylvania’s improvements, but Mr. Jennings said, “Common sense says, changes of that scope, it has to be state action as well as local action. It can’t just be local action because then you’d have differentiated results. The state must be doing something right as well as local school districts.”

The state-by-state comparison became possible after 2002 as states implemented tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Mr. Cosby, who headlined yesterday’s rally at the governor’s request, was in Harrisburg to stump for Mr. Rendell’s education spending plan. He said he hasn’t been following the budget debate but is familiar with the struggle to fund education because it’s happening nationwide.

“Politicians in their speeches always [say], ‘Elect me and I will do good things for education.’ Two days after the swearing in, they talk about cuts,” he said. “No more cuts.”

House and Senate Republicans — who largely oppose Mr. Rendell’s spending plan — have not proposed cutting education spending, but they would keep it at current levels by using federal economic stimulus money. The governor would like to use the federal money to increase basic education spending and continue phasing in a new basic subsidy formula aimed at improved equity and adequacy.

Mr. Rendell argues the state will be left with a gap of about $700 million when stimulus funds dry up in about two years.

The governor also is concerned that the Republican plan would result in cuts to wealthier districts because the federal government requires most of the stimulus money to go to poor districts, said Mr. Rendell’s spokesman, Gary Tuma.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republican caucus, said, “There’s going to be a gap no matter what, but the gap under the governor’s plan would be gargantuan. Doing what Gov. Rendell wants — increasing spending with federal money he knows will expire — would lead to huge fiscal problems.”

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