March 02. 2014 6:19PM

Test scores tell tale of one city, several towns

New Hampshire Union Leader

A significant gap in NECAP test scores that favors Pinkerton Academy over Manchester Central High School narrows when only scores of white and affluent students are reviewed.

Test scores also show that Manchester High School West lags significantly behind Pinkerton Academy, even when factors of race and affluence are taken into account. But SAT scores, which measure the performance of college-bound students, show West the best of the three schools.

The findings are found in a compilation of data that the New Hampshire Union Leader undertook to compare Pinkerton and the two Manchester high schools attended by most Hooksett teenagers. This month, Hooksett residents will vote on a long-term contract to send most of its high school students to Pinkerton Academy. The Manchester suburb has historically looked to Central and West high schools to educate its students. But classroom overcrowding last year and budget constraints have sparked an effort in Hooksett to sign a long-term deal with Pinkerton, a privately operated, publicly funded high school.

The New Hampshire Union Leader gathered data from the schools as well as the state Department of Education to compare the three high schools.

Educators say the data are useful, but not the complete package when it comes to choosing a high school.

"I really wish people would not pit one school against another. Every school has its unique qualities," said Mary Anderson, headmaster of Pinkerton Academy. A test score is just one indicator of one day. She said many factors need to be considered in selecting a high school.

The data show many contrasts between the school systems. Manchester schools are city schools with a diverse racial and socio-economic population. Pinkerton is suburban with a population that more closely resembles Hooksett.

Pinkerton has a student population of more than 3,100 students, 92 percent of whom are white and only 13 percent of poor and moderate income. Minority students make up nearly 20 percent of the Manchester high school populations. At West, nearly half the students — 46 percent — are of poor or moderate income.

Manchester school officials tout their diversity and the number of students who come from foreign countries and cultures.

"Imagine you're studying the history of the Middle East or Asia, and you have the opportunity first-hand to hear about it. That exists at West and Central," said David Ryan, assistant superintendent at Manchester.

Other data show that Pinkerton has a better graduation rate, but lower SAT scores than the Manchester high schools. They show that Manchester's average teacher salary is higher, while Pinkerton spends about $1,000 more per student than Manchester.

The latest NECAP scores for reading proficiency show that a double-digit gap exists between the Derry-based Pinkerton and two Manchester high schools, West and Central.

But that narrows to a 7-percentage point gap when white students at Pinkerton and Central are compared. The gap remains significant — 19-percentage points — when reading scores of white students at West are compared to Pinkerton.

A very similar gap exists — 7 percentage points at Central, 19 percentage points at West — when reading scores of affluent students are compared against Pinkerton.

Manchester school officials say they are looking to increase test scores by adopting a district-wide curriculum that will be taught consistently throughout city schools. Ryan said the district also has to elevate the expectations of all students.

But he said he doesn't want to defend city high schools based on NECAP test scores.

"Education is much thicker than that," Ryan said. He added that Hooksett students do well in Manchester schools. At West, for example, 60 percent of Hooksett students scored proficient or better in the most recent NECAP test. Three Hooksett students were among the top West graduates last year.

Anderson said many students don't take NECAP seriously. Pinkerton does what it can to encourage students, in part by putting NECAP scores on their permanent record.

Other comparisons:

• Per-pupil spending. Superintendent Debra Livingston said a community makes its decision on how much to invest in its schools, and she knows of no study that says what the correct number should be. "Certainly it's about a wise use, making sure the dollars are going as directly as possible to the classroom.

At Pinkerton, which spends about $1,000 more per student, Anderson said the school emphasizes technology, supplies and up-to-date textbooks.

• Teacher pay. Livingston said more than half of Manchester teachers are at the top of their scale, so salaries are higher. Anderson said Pinkerton Academy teachers are not unionized; raises are based on merit. About six years ago, many long-term Pinkerton teachers retired and have been replaced, which would tend to lower the average salary.

• School safety. Ryan questioned Pinkerton's report of no school safety incidents for the last school year. The state defines a safety incident as an assault, sexual assault, bomb threat, other serious crimes as well as harassment along the lines of gender, race, disability status and sexual orientation.

"How is it there's nothing being reported?" said Ryan, who admits that West's low number — one incident — also raises concerns. Anderson said Pinkerton follows state guidelines for reporting.

• Anderson said she can't explain the lower average combined SAT scores for Pinkerton. Ryan said it may be that more Pinkerton students take the test, which would lower the average score.