FOR A SIXTH straight year under state control, Philadelphia School District students posted impressive gains on the state's reading and math exams, city school officials announced yesterday.
The gains cut across all racial lines and include students with disabilities, those learning English and those identified as economically disadvantaged.
Still, the latest results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) revealed the continuation of another pattern - a significant achievement gap that has Asian and white students outperforming their African-American and Hispanic peers.
Officials hope to close the gap by distributing funding more equitably under a system known as weighted student funding, School Reform Commission Chairwoman Sandra Dungee Glenn said during a news conference at the school district's administration building.
"One of the things we have to know more about and understand better is how we are supporting students who have the biggest gap to close, and how do we, particularly, focus resources in those schools," she said.
"As we learn that, and as we better target resources in that way, I think you will begin to see some dents in the achievement gap," Dungee Glenn added.
Each March, students across the state in grades 3 through 8 and 11th grade are given the PSSA in math and reading. This year, about 85,000 city school-district students were tested.
In math, 49 percent scored at the advanced or proficient levels, which means they achieved the state's academic standard.
Last year, 44.9 percent reached the advanced or proficient levels and just 19.5 percent did so during 2001-02, the year during which the state took control of the school district due to chronic academic and financial failure.
In reading, 44.8 percent of city students reached the advanced or proficient levels, an improvement from the 40.6 percent who reached those levels last year and the the 23.9 percent who did so during the 2001-02 takeover year.
The improvement was driven mainly by sweeping reforms such as a core curriculum implemented by the School Reform Commission after the takeover, and hard work by students, parents, teachers, principals and other school employees, Dungee Glenn said.
"As the chairwoman said, it takes a lot in order for this to happen, but it doesn't happen by accident. It's because all of us are pulling together, and we will continue to pull together," Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said at the news conference.
Michael Lerner, business agent for the principals' union - the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators - said he hoped that the test results would convince the General Assembly that city schools are a good investment.
"Too often I've heard legislators say Philadelphia is just a bottomless pit and you throw money in and there are no results. They can't say that anymore. Philadelphia is a district of achievers," he said.
"We've done it for six straight years now. That's not an accident, that's not a fluke, that's dedicated hard work on the part of everyone who works for the school district."
LaVonne M. Sheffield, school district chief accountability officer, said the decision by the SRC to spend extra money over the years on the curriculum and on training educators to teach the curriculum was key to the improvement.
"Big money went into moving this school district," she said. "Our decision now is what the next step is going to be and how we build on success."
Test scores were actually up in 2001-02, making seven consecutive years of district-wide improvement, but school officials said that year preceded the "systemic" reforms implemented by the SRC.
PSSA scores are a major component used by the state to determine if schools and school districts made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The law's ultimate goal is for 100 percent of public-school students to be at the advanced or proficient levels in math and reading by the year 2014. To be on target this year, a school or district must have 63 percent of its students in reading and 56 percent in math on grade level. Students in all racial and other subgroups must reach those achievement levels.
Schools that fail to reach AYP face sanctions including being placed under private management. The SRC has implemented a number of reforms at failing schools, including hiring private school managers.
The state is tentatively scheduled to release AYP data for districts and individual schools Aug. 18, officials said.
Asian students strongest
By race in Philadelphia, Asian students performed the strongest. In math, 79.2 percent were at the advanced or proficient levels and 67.5 percent were there in reading. That's an improvement from 49.9 percent in math and 40.1 percent in reading during 2001-02.
Among white students, 67.8 percent were on target in math and 63 percent in reading. That's an improvement from 40.9 percent in math and 46.6 percent in reading during 2001-02.
Among African Americans, 43 percent were advanced or proficient in math and 40.3 percent in reading. That's an improvement from 12.3 percent in math and 17.8 percent in reading in 2001-02.
With Hispanic students, 44.7 percent in math and 38.4 percent in reading were on target. That's an improvement from 15.9 percent in math and 18 percent in reading during the takeover year.
Hispanic students posted the most growth in reading this year compared to last year - 4.7 percent more becoming advanced or proficient. In math, African American students posted the most year-to-year improvement - 4.2 percent more becoming advanced or proficient.
The city's 61 charter schools - publicly funded but independent - outperformed district schools and schools placed under private management by the district.
In reading, 51.5 percent of charter students were advanced or proficient, compared to 30.6 percent at privately-managed schools and 47.3 percent at district-managed schools.
In math, 51.6 percent of charter students were on academic target, compared to 51.4 percent at district-managed schools and 34.9 percent at privately-managed schools.