New Castle News

Closer Look

October 3, 2012

Our Opinion: Red flags raised on New Castle, Ellwood test scores

NEW CASTLE — Recently released state data on education standards represents a wake-up call for Lawrence County.

The community’s two largest school districts, New Castle and Ellwood City, fell short of the mark and failed to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress threshold established by the state. And other individual schools throughout the county received critical assessments as well.

Basically, standardized test results for students in these schools and districts did not meet expectations in math and reading. For years now, such standardized testing, and the importance placed on it, has been a bone of contention — among educators, politicians and taxpayers.

And although we acknowledge such testing may not tell the whole story about a student body, we do believe it is an important gauge of progress.

So why the poor results this year locally compared to previous years?

A few rationales have been put forth by local and state officials. Superintendent Frank Aloi in Ellwood City cites the gradual tightening of state standards that takes place every year. His New Castle counterpart, George Gabriel, says that reductions in state subsidies had a measurable impact on what the district can do for struggling students.

However, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis, in discussing lower scores around the state, claimed that tougher oversight caused a reduction in the amount of cheating in the most recent round of testing.

In essence, Tomalis is arguing that cheating has been a widespread problem in Pennsylvania schools. Past investigations have indeed uncovered suspicious changes on test papers in some districts. But there is limited evidence that this problem is as bad as Tomalis implies.

In fact, no specific evidence has been brought forth that cheating has occurred in any of Lawrence County’s school districts. If it exists, and if the state can support this contention, the taxpayers in those districts, as well as school officials, ought to be told.

And if there is no evidence of widespread cheating, then Tomalis owes some apologies and some explanations.

Whenever schools fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards, they are obliged to come up with plans to improve the results. If there is documentation linking budget cuts to lower student performance, this is the time to highlight them. Districts should share this information with the public and with local elected representatives to vote on budget plans.

We are aware that when it comes to low test scores, there are efforts by various parties to offer the explanations they think will put them in the best light. We are hearing these from state and local officials.

But what really counts is data and evidence that will document the problems in order to properly pursue solutions. This is an important issue, not only for students, but for a community that needs to tout quality education.

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