Based on the results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) for the last school year, a majority of Upper Darby middle school students are more likely to be chronically absent than proficient in English or math. An analysis conducted utilizing the Future Ready Index shows that middle school students are not faring much better than Upper Darby High School students.Yet, the results from an adjacent district show significantly improved outcomes.

The data raises the question: why? Why just a few miles away are the academic outcomes so dramatically different? It is a complex issue. 

The most obvious reason may be a failure to focus on academic outcomes. Public schools spend many hours and resources on issues and topics that are unrelated to learning basic and advanced skills. For example, most districts in the region and across the state have a diversity, equity, and inclusion plan that is supposed to focus on equity for all students. Yet the academic results of this well-intentioned and often costly initiative are simply not there.

My analysis of Upper Darby High School showed high rates of habitual truancy, low test scores, and increased violence. Based on the 2022-2023 results, both Drexel Hill Middle School and Beverly Hills Middle School are trending in the same trajectory. While Drexel Hill is performing better than Beverly Hills, both are woefully underperforming compared to the statewide average.

Students at Beverly Hills Middle School are four and a half times more likely to be chronically absent than proficient in math, and almost one and half times more likely to be chronically absent than proficient in English. Drexel Hill Middle School students are more likely to be proficient in English than chronically absent, but over one and a half times more likely to be chronically absent than proficient in math.

Some minority groups are performing even worse than the schoolwide numbers above. 

Overall, minority students are doing better at Drexel Hill than at Beverly Hills. For example, Hispanic students at Drexel Hill are generally scoring at or above the schoolwide average in English, and they are close to the average in math. However, black students are consistently below average in both English and math. And while black students are performing better at Drexel Hill than Beverly Hills, they are all still below their schoolwide average and far below the state average.

Upper Darby Middle Schools comparison of English and math proficiency by year and race

% Proficient or Advanced2018-20192020-20212021-20222022-2023
Statewide Average – English62.1%55.0%54.1%54.5%
Drexel Hill – EnglishSchoolwide48.0%38.9%42.4%40.2%
Black38.6%32.0%34.2%33.0%
Hispanic56.9%37.7%42.6%44.4%
Economically Disadvantaged39.6%33.6%36.9%34.8%
Beverly Hills – EnglishSchoolwide39.8%25.6%30.9%29.0%
Black30.2%17.7%22.6%20.4%
Hispanic38.2%20.4%21.0%13.8%
Economically Disadvantaged37.0%24.1%30.1%28.2%
Statewide Average – Math45.2%37.3%35.7%38.3%
Drexel Hill – MathSchoolwide21.6%10.1%9.4%13.9%
Black13.2%7.7%4.2%7.7%
Hispanic22.2%10.5%8.1%12.7%
Economically Disadvantaged14.0%6.5%6.3%10.5%
Beverly Hills –  MathSchoolwide15.3%6.5%8.1%8.6%
Black6.4%2.5%2.1%2.7%
Hispanic10.4%0.0%1.6%1.8%
Economically Disadvantaged13.9%6.3%7.1%7.5%

Upper Darby Middle Schools’ Chronic Absenteeism rates* 

2021-20222022-2023
Drexel Hill11.6%22.7%
Beverly Hills21.6%38.8%

Note: Chronic Absenteeism is defined by the Pennsylvania Department of Education as missing more than ten percent of the scheduled number of days of school.

When comparing the two Upper Darby middle schools with the statewide averages, both schools are significantly below average. While the results are better in English than in math, and generally better for Drexel Hill than Beverly Hills, the overall numbers are quite sobering. Only 13.9 percent of Drexel Hill students and only 8.6 percent of Beverly Hills students are proficient in math, while the statewide average is 38.8 percent. Slightly over 40 percent of Drexel Hill students and 29 percent of Beverly Hills students are proficient in English with the statewide average at 54.5 percent.

Overall, the results at both middle schools are dreadful, and they are even worse for black and some Hispanic students. The test scores coupled with chronic absenteeism are bad enough, but add behavioral incidents to the analysis, and the situation is bleak. Out of school suspensions, assaults on students, and weapon possession incidents have all increased at both schools from the 2021-2022 to the 2022-2023 school year. The rise in incidents and violence makes creating a safe learning environment challenging.

Upper Darby Middle Schools’ Behavioral Incidents

Out of School SuspensionsAssault on StudentPossession of a Weapon
2021-20222022-20232021-20222022-20232021-20222022-2023
Drexel Hill Middle School3805521421910
Beverly Hills Middle School4485992635917

Statewide problems

While highlighting the Upper Darby issues, it is important to note that scores across the state are low and have been trending in that direction for quite some time. Even prior to the extended school closures, only 45.2 percent of students statewide were proficient in math, and only 62.1 percent in English. Since the 2020-2021 school year, statewide test scores have remained flat with little to no improvement. Upper Darby middle schools have seen some marginal improvement but with scores so low, it is hardly noteworthy.

However, the news is not all bad. An analysis of the same data from adjacent Springfield School District shows that some districts are far exceeding the state average. E.T. Richardson Middle School, located just a few miles from Beverly Hills and Drexel Hill Middle Schools is significantly outperforming their contiguous neighbors in Upper Darby.

E.T. Richardson Middle School students are five times more likely to be proficient in English than chronically absent and three and half times more likely to be proficient in math than chronically absent. Similarly, black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students are well above the statewide average in English and consistently above the statewide average in math.

Overall, Springfield School District middle school students are achieving above the state average academically, experiencing fewer behavioral incidents, and attending school more regularly.

E.T. Richardson Middle School English and math proficiency by year and race

% Proficient or Advanced2018-20192020-20212021-20222022-2023
Statewide Average – English62.1%55.0%54.1%54.5%
Richardson MS – EnglishSchoolwide81.3%76.4%80.8%79.6%
Black67.2%49.0%66.1%66.3%
Hispanic62.5%72.0%88.0%71.1%
Economically Disadvantaged71.8%64.8%68.5%68.8%
Statewide Average – Math45.2%37.3%35.7%38.3%
Richardson MS – MathSchoolwide61.0%41.2%49.6%58.4%
Black25.0%16.0%30.4%41.3%
Hispanic40.0%24.0%48.0%42.1%
Economically Disadvantaged42.4%24.4%37.6%44.2%

E.T. Richardson Middle School Chronic Absenteeism and Behavioral Incidents by year

2021-20222022-2023
Chronic Absenteeism6.6%16.1%
Out of School Suspensions103154
Assault on Student712
Possession of a Weapon11

Equity outcomes

Upper Darby created an Equity Plan in 2018 that runs through this year. The overarching equity goal is “to ensure that every student, regardless of background, is exposed to relevant and engaging learning experiences and curriculum. Furthermore, to increase access, opportunity, inclusion and support for all learners.”

While this goal sounds lofty and “inclusive,” there are not measurable goals related to increasing academic outcomes for minority or low-income students. The plan includes action items to diversify staff and create more culturally responsive classrooms. There is no mention of academic performance, other than vague references to educational opportunities. There is also a glaring lack of accountability and data collection to measure the efficacy of the plan.

Absent any metrics for evaluation, taxpayers are forced to examine the most recent test scores in light of the five year equity plan. Clearly, black students, even if they received more “access to equitable opportunities” are not achieving at the same level as their peers.

Perhaps Upper Darby and districts across the region should redirect dollars that are currently being spent on equity initiatives and other similar, if nebulous programs, i.e., social emotional learning, to evidence-based programs that will teach our children to read, write, and perform math computations!

The most equitable, diverse, and inclusive schools will ensure that every student is proficient in reading and math at every grade level. They will measure their results and continue to adjust instruction until the goal is met. It is simply unconscionable that more than half of the Commonwealth’s public school students are not proficient in math and only slightly higher than 50 percent are proficient in English. 

As Columbia professor and scholar John McWhorter wrote in his book Woke Racism, one of the most powerful ways to eradicate racism is to ensure every child learns to read. Imagine if every student in Upper Darby and all districts across the Commonwealth learned to read proficiently. That might be the first step to ensuring equal opportunity and access in schools and in the community.

If we are serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion, then the first step is basic reading instruction. Literacy is among the great equalizers. It’s hard to believe this concept has become novel, but it warrants repeating when we watch a school system actively unravel, with significant social-economic consequences. 

When companies fail, they declare bankruptcy. When cities fail, they enter the commonwealth’s fiscal distress program. When individuals falter, they consult with medical and mental health professionals, and faith leaders. What are school districts to do as they collapse? As Upper Darby would suggest, more of the same. Is it all the district’s fault? What responsibility do we assign the community, ourselves? 

There are many other issues to address, which we will cover over the next few months, but this is a necessary starting point. 

Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in Education, and has dedicated her career to advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families. She covers education issues for Broad + Liberty. Contact her at barosica@broadandliberty.com.

One thought on “Beth Ann Rosica: Upper Darby Middle School students are more likely to be chronically absent than proficient in math”

  1. “While this goal sounds lofty and “inclusive,” there are not measurable goals related to increasing academic outcomes for minority or low-income students. The plan includes action items to diversify staff and create more culturally responsive classrooms. There is no mention of academic performance, other than vague references to educational opportunities. There is also a glaring lack of accountability and data collection to measure the efficacy of the plan.”

    At East HS in the WCASD back in the late 2000s when the data was disaggregated for income, the academic achievement of Black and Brown students was still lower than White students. In other words, money didn’t matter. We couldn’t use a Marxist interpretation of history anymore to blame it all on the rich folks that surrounded the borough. And they were such easy targets.

    In desperation, the administration, led by Dr. Richard Dunlap (Dan McGarry’s mentor.), implemented Courageous Conversations, an homogenized CRT training program palatable for affluent school districts. Since rich folks were exonerated, and we couldn’t blame the students for their low academic achievement, nor their parents, nor their habits and behaviors (culture), we looked at how the teachers were delivering instruction. White teachers were to deliver instruction differently to Black and Brown students taking into account their learning styles. (All good teachers do this by the way for all their students.) White teachers as power figures in the classroom were to recognize that they held their position due to White privilege. This was one of the reasons that Black and Brown students saw academic achievement as a White construct and rejected it. What was needed was a more diverse staff who knew intuitively how Black and Brown kids learned. What was needed was a more culturally diverse classroom that represented Blacks, Hispanics, Gays, and Women in the curriculum. For example in English classes, it was more important to have an equitable representation of authors than it was to have quality literature based upon accepted literary conventions and criticism.

    What an equity program does is deflect blame and accountability not only away from parents but away from educational entities like school districts. Equity programs are less expensive than long-term programs designed to increase academic achievement. We all know how hard it is for a school district to stick to a particularly program over time. There’s always a new superintendent or school board who derails the previous administration’s work. We all know that we need early interventions to help Black and Brown kids overcome their disadvantages, their traumas. To close the achievement gap between Black and Brown kids and White kids we must get to Black and Brown kids before they enter school. After the age of eight, it’s almost impossible to turn a kid around. They are ossified in their habits and behaviors. According to developmentalists, the next window doesn’t open again until the early twenties and by then these kids have already been adjudicated. Dan McGarry wasn’t wrong to ask parents for help last year but he was asking the wrong parents. He should have been making his entreaties to preschool parents.

    I retired in 2012. I do not know if Courageous Conversations training closed the achievement gap between White and Black/Brown students at East HS. The measurable goals are those scores on achievement tests. If a diversified staff and more culturally responsive classrooms increase test scores then the Equity Plan has been successful. Of course the excuse will be that racism still exists hence we need more time implementing our Equity Plan. I believe Courageous Conversations is still part of teacher training in the WCASD. It is billed as diversity training not CRT. Teachers don’t teach CRT. They teach through the lens of CRT. Courageous Conversations is the brainchild of University of Pennsylvania graduate Glenn Singleton.

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