Standardized test scores are up — a little — in Pennsylvania and its largest school district, Philadelphia, the state Department of Education said Wednesday.

Statewide, 61 percent of students taking the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams this past spring passed the reading tests, and 43 percent passed the math tests. Students in third through eighth grade take the PSSAs.

In Philadelphia, 33 percent passed the test in reading, and 19 percent passed in math. Both scores were up one percentage point from last year's scores.

Philadelphia saw notable gains in early literacy — where it has focused considerable time and resources over the last several years. District third graders' scores jumped by five percentage points, to 35 percent. Students at every grade level but fifth showed reading gains; fifth graders' scores were flat. Fewer students are scoring at the lowest reading level, below basic.

"The results are clear; we are making progress as a school district, and our strategies and initiatives are building a strong foundation for academic success," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said in a statement. The district has strengthened early literacy teacher training, added early literacy coaches, required a 120-minute literacy block in all elementary schools, and set up classroom libraries in every elementary school.

Top performers regionally included Whitemarsh Elementary School in the Colonial School District, where 97 percent of students met standards in math — the second-highest score in the state — and Philadelphia's Masterman School, where 99 percent of students met standards in English language arts. (Masterman came in just behind Whitemarsh on math, with 96 percent of students passing.)

Donna Drizin, Whitemarsh's principal, said, "The children are having so much fun, they just don't even know that they're doing math."

In her district, kindergarten through third-grade classes last year piloted an Innovation Lab with 3-D printers, robotics, and a maker space, the kind of technology more often found in middle and high schools. But throughout the Montgomery County district, elementary students are exposed to STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art, and math – learning, with even kindergartners learning rudimentary computer coding.

Drizen said the district works on a continuous improvement model where it focuses on data and multiple measures.

"We encourage all children, including females, to love science and math," she said. "They're using manipulatives, they're having fun. …When you walk into the classroom, you just smile."

Regionally, some schools made big gains. Pottstown's Franklin Elementary School's reading score jumped 27 percentage points, to 62 percent passing. In math, Philadelphia's Carver High School of Engineering and Science improved by 17 points, to 52 percent scoring advanced or proficient.

Across the country, many education officials are backing away from using test scores as the final word in how schools are evaluated. Pedro A. Rivera, the state education secretary, downplayed the importance of the test scores.

"Standardized tests help identify success and needs in students and schools so they can prioritize and plan, as well as meet federal and state reporting requirements," Rivera said Wednesday in a statement. "However, high-stakes testing does not tell the full story, and the department is taking several actions to better communicate student progress in our schools."

Students will spend less time taking PSSAs this school year, the state has announced.

Staff writer Kathy Boccella contributed to this article.

PSSA Test Scores in Southeastern Pa.

Nearly 650 schools in the region took the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams in grades 3 through 8 for Math and English Language Arts. Students in 4th and 8th grades also took a Science exam. The scores shown include a building score (all grades combined) based on the percentage who passed the exam in 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Bucks County

Chester County

Delaware County

Montgomery County

Philadelphia

SOURCE: Pennsylvania Department of Education
Staff Graphic