When the state Department of Education on Feb. 1 released its second annual list of struggling schools, Panther Valley middle and high schools were again included.

While reading comments on social media and listening to lunch counter chatter reveals that many people are pointing fingers at teachers and administrators, education experts say the situation is as complex as the solution may be.

The list of low-achieving schools, based on the students' combined math and reading scores for the 2011-2012 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, was begun last year at the behest of the state Department of Community and Economic Development. According to the Department of Education, DCED wanted the list in order to make more people aware of its Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, which Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law last year. Under the program, low- and moderate-income students in low-achieving schools may be eligible to apply for a scholarship to another school through the program.

PSSAs are the tests created by the state to meet the requirements of former President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. The tests include assessments in reading and math, which are taken by students in grades three, four, five, six, seven and eight. Students in grades four and eight are administered the science PSSA.

Getting on the list

Last year, both Panther Valley and the Jim Thorpe schools were listed as low-achieving. This year, only Panther Valley was listed.

"Act 85 of 2012 requires the department of education to calculate the lowest 15 percent of elementary and secondary schools based on the combined math and reading scores on most recent publicly available results of the PSSAs, which in this case is 2011-12," said PDE spokesman Timothy Eller.

Panther Valley Middle School's 2011-2012 PSSA scores were 21.3 percent below basic math skills and 21.8 percent below basic reading skills. The high school's scores were 34.9 percent and 24.1 percent, respectively, according to PDE.

"A school that falls within the lowest 15 percent is listed on the low-achieving school list and a student who resides, within the attendance boundaries of the school may be eligible for an Opportunity Scholarship," Eller said.

Students who live within the affected schools' attendance areas – and whose families meet income guidelines – can apply for scholarships of up to $8,500, or up to $15,000 for special education students. Students parents are sent letters informing them of the school's placement on the list and advising them of the tax credit scholarship program.

What affects test scores?

While some people are quick to blame teachers or administrators for low test scores. Numerous factors come into play in determining how well a child does on academic tests.

Panther Valley school director David Hiles has said one problem is the district's increasing number of transient families, those families who move into the school district, only to leave again within months.

"We aren't educating those kids when they take these tests," he said at a July 26, 2012 public meeting.

At that same meeting, Superintendent Rosemary Porembo pointed out that Panther Valley has a high poverty rate, which impacts school performance. Currently, 65 percent of Panther Valley students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a measure PDE uses to determine districts' poverty rates.

The borough of Lansford, for example, is hard-hit. According to the U.S. Census, the borough has a 9.1 percent unemployment rate. Of the town's 1,753 households, 405 (22.7 percent) receive food stamps. Of families with children under age 5, 44.2 percent fell under the poverty level in 2011. Numerous studies have correlated poverty with low school performance.

Teachers have less freedom to tailor education to their students' needs. One result of the No Child Left Behind Act is that teachers now spend much of their time making sure students memorize what they need to do well on the standardized tests. Teachers are evaluated by principals, and the state has now required that test scores be part of those evaluations.

The district is further burdened by increasing numbers of students with special needs.

"The district's per pupil ratio is $7,570.90 for regular education students, and is $23,562.23 for a special education student," Porembo said.

In addition to coping with students' increasing needs and troubles, schools are now facing yet another government hurdle.

"State standards are changing to become Common Core standards, so we now have to realign current curriculum to meet them," Porembo said.

"The PA Common Core Academic Standards are the framework for what students should know at each grade level,' Eller said. "They are more rigorous than the current PA Academic Standards. All public schools are to transition to the PA Common Core no later than the start of the 2013-14 school year."

Getting off the list

Panther Valley is doing what it can to improve, and is making headway.

"We're making school improvement plans, and making sure materials and plans meet state standards," she said. "Using the state's PVASS system, the high school has shown moderate evidence that the school exceeded the standard for PA Academic Growth in math and reading."

Porembo outlined some of the actions the district is taking to improve.

At the elementary school, the district is creating a "Development of Response to Intervention and Instruction to identify students in Kindergarten through fourth grade who are at risk readers, and to design an individualized instruction program to help them become successful," she said. "This will expand to the fifth grade in 2013-2014."

"The use of the 100 Book Challenge, which is funded through the Ametek Foundation, to provide students with reading material on grade level to read in school and home in 15 minute intervals. This is to increase vocabulary, automaticity and motivation to read. With the addition of Accelerated Reader in the fourth and fifth grade, this provides students with strategies to increase their comprehension skills. The district also is realigning curriculum and materials in math," she said.

At the middle and high schools, the district is "establishing a system within the school that fully ensures teachers and administrators meet on a regular basis to use multiple data sources to reflect on progress," Porembo said.

She pointed out that 86 percent of the 2012 graduating class went on to post-secondary schools. Further, using the state's four- year cohort for measuring graduation rates, Panther Valley has a 77 percent rate as compared to the state's 75 percent rate, she said.

In Jim Thorpe, now off the list of low-achieving schools, Superintendent Barbara Conway described how her district had made, and is continuing to make, improvements.

"The focus of our improvement was the high school since that was the building that caused us to be on the list. Only one grade (11th) was tested at the time this determination was made, and the results were obviously not good," she said. "We did a schoolwide improvement plan, with greater emphasis on building basic reading and math skills.

"We also built into the high school day a 30-minute period called PODS (Preparing Outstanding Determined Students), where students are assigned to a teacher and a classroom group that meets their individual improvement needs. As an example, students scoring basic or below basic in math on the PSSA are working with a math teacher to target specific learning skills," Conway said.

"It has worked well. Because the groups are flexible, students can move in and out of groups as they gain skills and perhaps target other areas of need," she said. "Other than that, we of course continued to offer after-school assistance for our students who struggle most. All faculty at the high school are expected to assist with these endeavors as it is a cooperative venture."