Facts about Pennsylvania public schools

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Facts about Pennsylvania public schools

Pennsylvania public schools are among the best in the nation, according to objective measures and research from respected institutions. For more than a decade, student achievement has been improving, thanks to the efforts of educators and support professionals.

While research demonstrates success, it is always important to understand exactly what each test is designed to measure and how the information gathered can be used as part of a total picture. Knowledge of what each test strives to measure and how the results are intended to be used allows everyone to make honest interpretations of both results and implications. This report provides information on accomplishments of note and shares research information necessary to fully understand the results and their meaning.

Here are just a few facts that demonstrate the remarkable ability of Pennsylvania’s public schools to provide students with high-quality education.

Many Pennsylvanians may not realize what a good return they get on their investment in public schools. The facts and figures below prove that public schools are a wise investment for taxpayers.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicators of success

Pennsylvania's reading scores are among the nation's best

  • Only two states have statistically significant higher fourth-grade reading scores than PA.
  • Only four states have statistically significant higher eighth-grade reading scores than PA.

Pennsylvania's math scores are among the nation's best

  • Only five states have statistically significant higher fourth-grade math scores than PA.
  • Only eight states have statistically significant higher eighth-grade math scores than PA.

NAEP reading scores are up:

  • The proportion of Pennsylvania public school fourth-graders who scored at the highest two levels in reading in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has increased by 24 percent since 2003.
  • The proportion of Pennsylvania public school eighth-graders who scored at the highest two levels in reading in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has increased by 22 percent since 2003.


NAEP math scores are up:

  • The proportion of Pennsylvania public school fourth-graders who scored at the highest two levels in mathematics in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has increased by 25 percent since 2003.
  • The proportion of Pennsylvania public school eighth-graders who scored at the highest two levels in mathematics in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has increased by 20 percent since 2003.

Pennsylvania vs. other countries

Researchers from the National Center for Educational Statistics performed a study that statistically linked state performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) eighth-grade mathematics and science tests with international performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) eighth-grade mathematics and science tests.

  • Science: Pennsylvania’s NAEP performance would rank it below only six education systems (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Japan, Finland, Alberta-Canada), comparable to four, and above 37.
  • Math: Pennsylvania ranked below only six education systems (Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, and Russia), comparable to Quebec, and above 40.

About NAEP

According to a study by the Brookings Institution, the performance of Pennsylvania students on math and reading NAEP tests in both fourth and eighth grades places the state among the nation’s top 10 performance gainers, in both the short term (since 2003), and in the long term (since 1992).

The NAEP is the most appropriate test for use in comparing performance among states. In 1988, Congress created the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) to devise procedures for interstate comparisons of test scores. For example, unlike Student Achievement Test (SAT) data, NAEP procedures require a scientifically valid sampling plan whereby 100 schools are randomly selected to represent all public schools in the state.

While the NAEP tests are a valid manner in which to compare relative academic performance by students in different states, it is important to remember that states still differ in the characteristics of their populations. Some states have many more students from urban areas, those who have lower socioeconomic status, and lower levels of parental education than do other states. So while we can use the NAEP tests as an accurate barometer of student performance, the question remains as to what meaning to give to any observed differences between the states.

Other performance indicators

A high percentage of high school graduates plan to continue their education: More than seven out of 10 Pennsylvania high school graduates plan to continue their education after high school.

Among the best in the nation of students performing in college: Pennsylvania ranks fourth in the nation in the percentage of full-time college students who complete their bachelor’s degrees.

Student Achievement Tests (ACTs): Pennsylvania ranks 11th on the average ACT scores, and 47th in the proportion of students who take the ACT. Inasmuch as Pennsylvania has one of the lowest proportions of students taking the ACTs, an overall higher ranking among states is not unexpected.

Student Achievement Tests (SATs): Pennsylvania ranks 36th on the average SAT scores, and 13th in the proportion of students who take the SAT. Inasmuch as Pennsylvania has one of the highest proportions of students taking the SATs, an overall lower ranking among states is not unexpected.

  • In 2015, across all states there was a strong inverse relationship between participation rates and both SAT and ACT scores, i.e. the greater the percentage taking the test, the lower the score. For this reason, it is not appropriate to use either SAT or ACT scores to compare states.
  • The College Board, the organization that sponsors the SATs, says it is invalid to use the SAT to compare states.
  • Statisticians from Education Testing Service (ETS), the organization that produces the SATs, have written extensively about why the SAT is an invalid measure for ranking states that cannot be statistically rehabilitated.

Both the SAT and the NAEP tests are produced by Education Testing Services (ETS). ETS specifically warns against using the SAT to compare states and has developed the NAEP tests expressly for the purpose of comparing states.