With a tougher test and new Pennsylvania curriculum standards in place, Philadelphia School District students' performance on state exams plummeted last year, according to results released Wednesday.
Citywide, just 32 percent of district students passed English exams in the 2014-15 school year, and 17 percent passed math exams. That's compared with the 2013-14 school year, when 42 percent passed English and 45 percent passed math.
Thirty-seven percent of district students passed the state science exams, the same as the prior year.
The PSSAs, or Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, were more difficult this year - it was the first year they were aligned with the new state Common Core standards, and the benchmarks students needed to reach to pass the exam were higher.
Those tests are taken by third through eighth graders.
Districts statewide experienced major erosion in test scores; Philadelphia's drops mirrored Pennsylvania's as a whole, according to local school officials.
Statewide scores have not yet been released.
Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said in an interview last month that across the state, schools are still working on matching teaching to the new standards.
"Not all schools have taught or aligned the curriculum to the content that's on this assessment," Rivera said. "Some of the material is as rigorous as one full year further along. It's very likely that the fifth-grade assessment is actually sixth-grade material under the old standards."
Year-to-year comparisons are "not appropriate" because of the changes, district spokesman Fernando Gallard said, but Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has acknowledged that it's tough for principals and teachers to stomach double-digit drops.
Officials did tout some gains: 6,000 students in grades three through eight moved from the lowest performance level - "below basic" - to the next highest level, "basic." Those students still did not pass the test, however.
In the Keystone exams, taken by eleventh graders, 38 percent of district students passed the Algebra I test, down from 39 percent last year. Students performed better in biology, with 29 percent passing, up from 26 percent last year. And in literature, students' performance dipped from 52 percent passing in 2014 to 49 percent this year.
Hite, in a statement, called the 2014 tests "a new baseline" and said the district will build on them. He emphasized that the new state standards significantly affected scores.
"We know that this kind of significant transition will take time and requires investments in teacher training, curricular materials, student tutoring, and other supports," the superintendent said. "We also know that students are working hard; that there are multiple ways to measure our students' knowledge and mastery of skills; and that all of our students have the ability to grow academically."
Cheryl Logan, the district's interim chief of academics, echoed that message.
"It's one data point of many, and it can inform what we need to do moving forward, but it is not the be-all," Logan said. "Our focus is on kids learning."
Although officials pointed to the tougher test and more rigorous standards as reasons for the score tumble, Philadelphia's school budget situation surely had some effect, too.
Many district schools in the 2014-15 school year again lacked full-time counselors, nurses, and librarians and adequate supplies.