Spokane School District results on annual statewide achievement tests reveal a strong connection between poverty and low test scores.
As a rule, the higher the poverty in a school’s neighborhood, the lower the scores.
Educators say that’s because students from poor families tend to have fewer books and computers at home, fewer chances to travel, and, sometimes, less emphasis at home on doing well at school.
In addition, low-income families may move more frequently in search of affordable rent, bouncing children from school to school.
“We try,” said Brad Lundstrom, principal at Spokane’s lowest-scoring school, Holmes Elementary in the West Central neighborhood. “But it’s pretty minimal what we can do.”
The testing gap between rich and poor is a national phenomenon. Researchers say the best indicator of multiple-choice achievement test scores are parents’ education levels and income.
In a city like Spokane, with its mix of rich and poor neighborhoods, test scores merge toward the average.
In fourth-grade reading, Spokane’s average percentile score was 50. That means the average Spokane fourth-grader scored better than half the nation’s students and worse than the other half.
Of course, there is no average Spokane fourth-grader.
The average blends scores from across the city: from students at Holmes Elementary where the average reading score was 22, and from students at Mullan Road Elementary on the southeast side of town where the average reading score was 77.
Last year, the state average in fourth-grade reading was 50. This year’s state averages will be released Jan. 25.
Some Holmes Elementary fourth-graders attended 12 different elementary schools since kindergarten, said Lundstrom.
Student can miss important lessons by moving from school to school. For example, a student may move during a week of instruction on fractions and enter a new school that has already finished fractions.
Holmes tops the city in the percentage of students eligible for free lunches. Eighty-five percent of the students qualify for the federal free and reduced-priced lunch program.
Eligibility for the free and reducedprice lunch program is based on family income. A family of four with a gross annual income of $28,028 or less is eligible.
Helping children overcome disadvantages is difficult but necessary, said Lundstrom, now in his second year at Holmes. “I know we can do better.”
The school started keeping its library open until 5 p.m., hired 20 parents as literacy tutors and will start a summer school program. Lundstrom promised to shave his head if his students can read 1,996 hours at home this month.
Test score gaps along economic lines exist among Spokane’s middle and high schools, too.
For example, at Sacajawea Middle School on the South Hill, eighthgraders scored 73 in reading. At Shaw Middle School in Hillyard, eighth-graders scored 44.
Washington public school districts are required to test students in grades 4, 8 and 11 with state-selected standardized achievement tests.
A new testing system being designed for the state may further emphasize the testing gap between rich and poor.
“Kids from poor backgrounds will do even worse on these new assessments,” predicted Central Valley School District testing director Geoff Praeger, an adviser to the state commission developing the tests.
The new tests will require more reading and writing ability than the current tests and less simple recall of facts.
There still will be some multiple choice questions, but students also will have to show they can write, read charts and solve math problems.
“The kids will need to read more and write more,” Praeger said. “Both those skills have a lot to do with what education background their parents have and how much exposure the kids had to books when they were young.”
The new tests come from the state’s 1993 education reform law, which created a Commission on Student Learning to set education goals and a system for holding schools accountable to those goals.
The new fourth-grade tests will be tried in many schools, including schools in the Spokane area, this spring. Scores will not be reported during the pilot study. By the year 2000, the new testing system will be required of all school districts.
The Legislature then will decide whether and when the current testing system will be phased out.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 graphics: 1. Test scores and economic conditions 2. Test scores for local districts