Posted on January 17, 2023
Categories: Assessment, District Performance

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) requires Pennsylvania public school students to take two types of standardized assessments: the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) in grades 3-8, and the Keystone exams in grades 8-11.

PSSAs are secure, in-person standardized tests, and results are used for accountability purposes. Grades 3-8 students are tested in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math, and grades 4 and 8 students are also tested in Science. In spring 2022, 46,504 of 50,250 eligible School District of Philadelphia (SDP) students in grades 3-8 participated in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA).1

The Keystone exams are capstone tests for core courses in Literature, Algebra I, and Biology, typically taken by students in grades 8-11 the same year they complete the associated course; however, students can repeat an exam if desired. For accountability and reporting, PDE uses the highest Keystone score received by the end of grade 11, known as “Best by 11th.” In 2022, 8,476 SDP students across grades 9-11 took the Literature Keystone, 13,784 students in grades 8-11 took the Algebra I Keystone, and 9,300 students in grades 9-11 took the Biology Keystone.

Note that, nationwide, Covid-19 disrupted the administration of state standardized tests in both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. In spring 2020, the administration of PSSAs and Keystones was canceled entirely in Pennsylvania. In spring 2021, SDP administered PSSAs only to students who had returned to in-person hybrid learning, under guidance from PDE that the results would not be used for accountability purposes. In fall 2021, students who returned to school in person took the Keystones. The 2021-22 school year was the first year that the PSSAs and Keystones were administered normally since 2018-19 (pre-pandemic).

In late November, PDE published the results of the state standardized tests administered in the 2021-22 school year. According to the release, despite increases in ELA scores for grades 7-8 and math scores in a number of grade levels from 2020-21 to 2021-22, Pennsylvania students are still performing worse overall than they did in 2018-19, and ELA scores for grades 3-6 students continued to decline in 2021-22. The statewide Keystone results were similarly mixed, and because Keystone scores are not reported by the state until a student’s 11th grade year (even if the student was scheduled to take an exam in 9th or 10th grade, for example) the 2-year disruption to the testing schedule continues to affect the number of reported results in 2021-22.

SDP PSSA Results

In PSSA performance, SDP followed similar patterns to statewide trends, but showed a comparatively smaller decline in each subject. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, PSSA ELA proficiency among SDP students in grades 3-8 had been increasing slowly but steadily from 2014-15 through 2018-19. After the pandemic-related disruptions, however, overall PSSA ELA proficiency in SDP fell from 36% in 2019 to 34% in 2022, a decline of 2 percentage points (compared to a statewide drop of 6 percentage points). Among SDP students, Asian, Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino ELA proficiency declined by 2 to 3 percentage points, while proficiency among white students remained the same, and proficiency among multi-racial students increased by 4 percentage points.

PSSA Math proficiency for SDP students in grades 3-8 declined 5 percentage points, from 22% in 2019 to 17% in 2022 (compared to a statewide drop of 8 percentage points). Math proficiency for all SDP student groups saw declines, with the largest decline for Asian students (9 percentage points) and declines of 5-6 percentage points for other groups.

PSSA Science proficiency among grades 4 and 8 SDP students had been growing rapidly since 2016-17, but proficiency in Science declined 3 percentage points, from 40% in 2019 to 37% in 2022 (compared to a statewide drop of 6 percentage points). Although proficiency for all SDP student groups showed declines, proficiency among Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino students declined slightly more (3 and 4 percentage points respectively) compared to other groups, whose science proficiency declined 1 or 2 percentage points compared to 2019.

Proficiency for Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino students remained lower than the overall District levels in all three PSSA subjects in 2021-22, highlighting the need not only for extra supports to return students to their pre-Covid growth trajectory, but also a continued focus on increasing proficiency levels for Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino students.

SDP Keystone Results

SDP’s Keystone results are not directly comparable to PDE’s results because PDE reports only the “Best by 11th” scores for grade 11 students, while the SDP scores shown here include all students in grades 8-11 who took the 2021-22 Keystone exams.

Among all grades 9-11 SDP students who took the Literature Keystone in 2022, 42% scored proficient or advanced, a 1 percentage point increase over 2019. For all student groups, the proficiency rate was either the same or 1-2 percentage points higher than 2019.

Proficiency in the Algebra I Keystone for grades 8-11 SDP students was 17%, 3 percentage points lower than 2019.  All student groups showed declines of 3-5 percentage points in proficiency.

For the Biology Keystone, the percentage of grades 9-11 students who scored proficient or above was 26%, 2 percentage points lower than in 2019. All groups except Asian and Hispanic/Latino students experienced declines in proficiency. Hispanic/Latino students’ proficiency remained the same as in 2019 at 17%, and 55% of Asian students scored proficient or above, an increase of 1 percentage point from 2019.

For more detailed data on SDP PSSA and Keystone outcomes and trends, see our 2021-22 PSSA and Keystone research briefs or our Open Data website.

National Context

Given the unprecedented disruptions to both student learning and test administration since 2019, it is important to evaluate the state standardized test results for SDP students in the national context. FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, has been collating the available state standardized test results and analyzing the change from 2019 in the percentage of students that scored proficient or higher, as each state defined the categories, for ELA and Math.2 They have found that declines in proficiency were the most common outcome across the nation both for ELA and Math. In ELA, 22 states showed declines of more than 5 percentage points, 17 states showed declines within 5 percentage points, and just six states surpassed 2019 proficiency levels. In Math, no state showed an improvement over 2019 proficiency. Thirty-two states showed declines of more than 5 percentage points, and 13 states showed declines within 5 percentage points.

Source: What the Pandemic Did to NAEP, State Standardized Test Scores

Under this measure, Pennsylvania’s spring 2022 standardized test results were categorized as “Approaching” spring 2019 levels, with a decline of 5-10 percentage points. If we were to add SDP’s spring 2022 results to the chart, they would fall under “Rebounded,” or within 5 percentage points of spring 2019 levels.

1 This number includes students who took the Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessments (PASA). The PASA is designed for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who are not able to participate in the PSSA.

2 Results continue to be updated as states release their standardized testing data. The information referenced in this blog post was current as of 12/8/2022.