Allegheny Institute: Achievement Test Results and Education Spending

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

A lesson well learned by all departments reporting to the Governor is how to milk anything resembling good news and obfuscate or remain silent about less pleasant news. Recent case in point: The announcement by the Education Department lauding Pennsylvania’s first year ever with all grades showing improvements on the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) reading and math exams. The statement is true as far as it goes, but it leaves out some very important details.

Let’s look at a few facts that warrant attention before the Department’s statement is interpreted by the public and state legislators as proof that spending money at an ever faster pace is producing desired academic results.

First, except for the 8th grade, the bulk of all the increase in the percentage of students scoring at proficient or higher occurred between 2002 and 2005. For example, the percent of 5th graders at the proficient or better level for reading stood at 64.2 percent in 2005, up from 57 percent in 2002 but had managed to inch up to only the 64.7 percent level by 2009. Thus, it is not clear what has actually improved-the ability of teachers to teach to the test or actual student learning.

Similarly, 11th grade reading proficiency was 65 percent in 2005 and climbed
laboriously for four years to just 65.6 percent in 2009. In math an extremely
disappointing and dismally low 56 percent of 11th graders tested at the proficient or higher level in 2009, up from 50 percent in 2002-seven years to move six points.

Meanwhile, third grade students scoring at the proficient or higher level in math was 83 percent in 2006 but slipped to 81.8 in 2009.

And it is clear that statewide for each grade taking the exam once the fraction of a class reaching proficiency rises to 70-75 percent, further gains are extremely difficult. Thus, the idea that huge additional expenditure increases as proposed by the Governor will magically push test results substantially higher is a fool’s errand and a waste of tax dollars. Moreover, if the improvements in math and reading are being accomplished because of heavy emphasis on "teaching to the test" it raises the question of whether instruction in important subject areas is being given short shrift-geography, history, civics, and science to name a few.

It is also quite interesting to note the year to year scoring pattern by age cohort. That is to say, how do third graders perform as they progress through fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, etc? The picture is decidedly mixed. For example, as third graders in 2006, 83 percent of students reached the proficient or better level in math but when they were 6th graders in 2009 only 76 percent tested as proficient-this after dipping to just 73 percent as 5th graders. Similarly, third graders in 2007 scored at 78 percent proficient in math but two years later as 5th graders the percentage had dropped to 73.6 percent. Likewise, in 2006, 77 percent of 4th graders tested proficient in math but by 2009, as 7th graders, the percentage proficient was only 75.5 after slipping to 70 percent as 5th graders in 2007. In short, it seems very
difficult for cohorts to sustain gains from year to year.

To be fair, on the positive side, 2006’s 5th graders showed gains in both math and reading by the time they reached 8th grade-66.9 to 71.6 percent in math and 60.6 to 80.9 percent in reading.

Another interesting finding is the fact that 8th graders have a higher percentage of test takers at the proficient level in reading than any other grade for every year since 2006 while at the same time having the lowest percentage proficient in math for any grade other than the 11th over the four years since 2006. How is that possible? Does math get harder to learn or are the teachers simply less able to teach math well as it becomes more sophisticated?

Finally, there is a lot of volatility in the scores with surprising declines and upticks from year to year suggesting a lack of consistency in preparing students for the tests. Or could it be that test developers are changing the tests?

What is truly distressing about the mixed PSSA results is the cost of achieving the very modest improvement that has occurred in most grades. Since the 2002-03 school year statewide average current expenditures (excludes capital outlays) per K-12 pupil have risen from $8,400 to over $12,000 in the 2008-09 school year. State provided funding for K-12 rose from $6.96 billion to $9.68 billion over the same period. Both measures show an increase of over 40 percent during a period when overall prices rose around 18 percent. Thus, education spending has risen 2.3 times faster than inflation-or said another way, inflation adjusted spending has increased by over 20 percent in six years.

Meanwhile, only for the 8th grade scores and 5th grade math did test results improve by 20 percent. And in the case of the 5th grade math, most of the improvement had occurred by 2005 with relatively small gains since. For 11th graders improvement in the fraction scoring proficient has fallen well short of 20 percent. And these are the students a year from graduation.

And to reiterate, once the fraction of Pennsylvania students scoring proficient or higher reaches 70 to 75 percent in any grade, further statewide improvement becomes slow and difficult. Indeed, 80 percent seems to be a strong resistance point to break through at the state level.

Once again the Governor and other public school advocates need to remember that
academic achievement is not causally related to expenditures. During the 2007
school year, Pittsburgh Public Schools spent nearly $18,000 per pupil and had dismal district-wide PSSA results (56 percent advanced or proficient in math and 52 percent in reading). Meanwhile, both Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon School Districts (two of Pennsylvania’s top performing districts) spent about $12,000 per pupil and had very good PSSA results with both districts over 90 percent in reading and over 89 percent in math.

And so it goes. Those who want to enrich the education establishment lobby for ever more spending. Those who want actual education improvement seek real reforms such as vouchers and school choice. Unfortunately, the spenders have more political clout.

Too bad-the students and the state are the losers. So much for truly caring about the children. Spending arguments are just empty rhetoric to justify more money.

Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President
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