Students achieve record scores on statewide exams, guv wants to capitalize on it

Elementary students are lined up in the auditorum to move to their classrooms at Stearne School in Frankford. Their older peers across the Philadelphia School District showed improvements in reading and math on state standardized tests, officials said Monday. (Tom Gralish / Staff / File)

More Pennsylvania students than ever - about 72 percent - are on grade level in reading and math, the state Department of Education announced yesterday.

And for the first time, the number of students who are proficient or advanced in both subjects rose in all seven grades that were tested, the department said.

"Pennsylvania's investments in increasing student achievement are working, and for the sake of our economic future we cannot afford to lose momentum now," state Secretary of Education Gerald L. Zahorchak said in a prepared statement.

Each spring, public-school students in grades three through eight and 11 are given the standardized test known as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.

The reading and math results are a key component in determining which individual schools and school districts are making "adequate yearly progress" toward a federal goal that all students in all schools reach proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

Gov. Rendell appears to want the test results for use in swaying Republican lawmakers to fund his education initiatives contained in the stalled 2009-10 state budget bill.

Rendell wants to spend $418 million in new money to fund the second year of a six-year formula based on a 2007 state study that found that most of the state's school districts were underfunded. Republican legislators, however, have pushed back, saying Rendell's proposal is too expensive during an economic recession.

Republicans in the state Senate and House of Representatives have proposed cutting deeply into Rendell's education budget and backfilling the cuts with federal stimulus money.

Zahorchak said the improved PSSA scores are the result of increased funding and are proof that the funding formula advocated by Rendell is working.

"These results point to the importance of continued investment in Pennsylvania's school-funding formula to support proven academic programs in all 500 school districts," he said.

Most of the improvement was modest - a couple of percentage points higher than last year.

The highest performers were third-graders in math - 81.8 percent on grade level up from 80.5 percent; and fourth-graders in math - 82 percent on grade level up from 79.6 percent.

The most improvement was turned in by seventh-graders in math - 75.5 percent on grade level up from 70.6 percent.

Later this summer the state will release school and district-level PSSA and AYP results. *