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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Education

Spokane schools struggle with familiar problems amid release of ‘Nation’s Report Card’

Nov. 2, 2019 Updated Sat., Nov. 2, 2019 at 10:47 p.m.

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The nation’s report card is in, and it’s not a pleasant read.

Scores were stagnant at best in the 2019 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a measurement of math and language arts proficiency that was administered last spring to more than half a million fourth- and eighth-graders.

Math proficiency was stagnant and reading comprehension was down for both classes, a result that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos described as “devastating.”

“This country is in a student achievement crisis, and over the past decade it has continued to worsen, especially for our most vulnerable students,” DeVos said.

That was the biggest takeaway across the nation, the state and in Spokane: The scores of high achievers continue to rise, while those at the bottom end continue to sink.

According to the Washington State Report Card, available online from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, local schools in more affluent neighborhoods have generally seen rising test scores while schools in poorer neighborhoods have been flat or declining.

For example, at Wilson Elementary School on the South Hill, almost 82% of students met statewide standards in language arts in 2014-15. Last year, it was 85%.

Math proficiency also improved at Wilson during that period, from 77% meeting standards in 2014-15 to 84% last year.

Meanwhile, at Logan Elementary in northeast Spokane, 34% of students met statewide language arts standards last year, slipping from 35% four years earlier. The drop was steeper in math, from 35% in 2014-15 to 27% last year.

With some exceptions, those trends are steady across Spokane. The reasons are complex but mostly rooted in the problems of poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, the opioid epidemic, social media and other ills.

Schools are trying to fill the void, “but we see those needs increasing,” Adam Swinyard, chief academic officer for Spokane Public Schools, said Thursday.

Children in those poorer neighborhoods have fallen behind before they start kindergarten. Overall in Spokane Public Schools, only 24.3% of kindergartners meet the state standard for that grade, and many schools are in single digits.

The statewide average is 45.7%.

“Kids are coming in further behind,” Swinyard said. “And those schools that are highly impacted by poverty are seeing the most significant impacts.

“We are thinking a lot about early learning and kindergarten readiness. It has shifted a lot of conversations … many kids are not at standard, but we also know that many kids are coming in meeting standards.”

The gap is widening as Spokane’s kindergarten readiness fell from 30% three years ago, while other communities are holding steady.

The district has played catch-up, with encouraging results.

For example, three years ago, overall kindergarten readiness in Spokane was 26.4%, compared to 51.2% in Seattle and 48.3% in Tacoma.

By the time those children reached third grade, however, the gap had closed significantly. On average, Spokane third-graders’ math and language arts scores were 15 percentage points behind Seattle and only 5 percentage points behind Tacoma.

Spokane school officials say all-day kindergarten will continue to help students, along with smaller class sizes from K-3 and strong spending in schools where the need is greatest.

“We have worked really hard to lower K-3 class sizes,” Swinyard said. “We are hearing from staff and in our data that smaller class sizes in the early grades is important.”

Despite the discouraging trends, school officials also noted that graduation rates reached a record high of 88.7% last year.

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