Low-income students challenged by tests

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For months, state education officials forecasted lower scores on the new end-of-year exams first given this past spring. When the results were officially released Thursday, scores did indeed fall from previous years – dramatically in many cases.

The drop was fairly predictable. It’s common for scores to fall when new standards and assessments are adopted. That has been the trend in other states that have adopted the Common Core curriculum and developed new college and career-ready assessments.

What’s perhaps even more predictable than the overall drop, however, is how poor students perform on the new exams. The percent of students who qualify for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program is the standard used to determine rich and poor schools. In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, schools’ poverty rates often reflect the surrounding neighborhood, creating classes of low-wealth and high-wealth schools. The achievement gap between those schools is often as wide as the wealth gap.

Of the 10 lowest performing elementary schools, all have free- and reduced -lunch rates above 90 percent. A total of 17 elementary schools have more than 90 percent of their students on free- or reduced-lunch, and all of them are among the 20 lowest performing. The 10 best performing elementary schools include nine of the wealthiest. The pattern is largely the same at the middle school and high school levels.

“It’s a trend that’s not new,” said Beverly Emory, superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. “While there’s always been a gap, the gap seems much greater with this most recent round of data.”

For decades, studies have shown the link before poverty and low academic achievement. But there are also numerous examples around the country of students and schools overcoming the challenges that often come with poverty: fewer resources, less support and such challenges outside of the classroom as attendance, health and hunger.

Emory said part of the reason the gap seems to be widening with the more difficult test is a shift in the curriculum the tests are reflecting. When North Carolina implemented the Common Core last school year– a new, nation-wide curriculum initiative—the state shifted some academic standards into lower grades. This created a knowledge gap for many students that teachers had to try to fill, while still fitting in all of the new, more challenging standards.

“We were zipping through (to fill in the gaps) and then building on that shaky foundation,” Jane Murawski, a sixth-grade math teacher at the Downtown School, said about the challenge of implementing the new curriculum.

Now, add those gaps created by the new curriculum on top of the education gaps many low-wealth schools are already facing and the challenge becomes greater.

Many poor students enter school already behind their wealthier peers. They come in behind grade level, meaning that students have more to learn in a given school year to have any chance of catching up.

It’s a tall order, says Shelia Burnette. Burnette is the principal at Konnoak Elementary, where more than 92 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-lunch.

“A typical year’s worth of growth is not enough,” Burnette said.

That is where proficiency scores themselves fall short of telling the whole story. At Konnoak, just 23.5 percent of all tests taken in math, reading and science by all third, fourth and fifth grades scored as proficient or better. But, the school exceeded its expected growth. In fact, it had one of the highest growth rates in the district, meaning that while many students didn’t pass the end-of-grade exams they learned more in the given year than students at other schools. It’s a sign they’re on the right track, Burnette said.

“Growth has been tremendous,” she said. “It clearly defeats the mindset that children of poverty are learning at a slower rate, at a lower pace when given the right encouragement and instruction.”

That growth does not come easily, or cheaply, though. High poverty schools often get extra resources to try to combat the additional challenges. There are pay incentives for teachers, an attempt to attract the best and brightest to low-wealth schools. Class sizes are kept lower. Volunteers, mentoring, tutoring and community partnerships are heavily relied upon.

“We know where they need to be, and we work tirelessly to get them (there),” said Donna Cannon, principal at Diggs-Latham Elementary School where more than 96 percent of students qualify for the federal lunch subsidies.

Cannon said Diggs-Latham relies heavily on community partnerships, like a seven-week tutoring program with students from UNC-Greensboro. Diggs-Latham met its expected growth, but only 26.3 percent of tests scored proficient.

“We’re seeing small growth and progress, but (students) are progressing,” she said.

The tests, standards and curriculum they’re supposed to reflect are all said to be more rigorous. It creates yet another challenge for students and teachers in the district’s poorest schools, but educators all seem to agree that raising the bar will benefit students in the long run.

“We have this huge gap, and it’s a very real issue that affects kids right this minute, but have a community that accepts that responsibility,” Emory said. “Speaks louder to us about how aggressive we need to be about interventions.

“It’s certainly not easy or everybody would have figured it out.”

By Arika Herron/Winston-Salem Journal


  • Faith

    Where I grew up we were all low-income. We all did fine on tests because they taught us the basics in school. I have no idea what they teach today. Whatever it is, it is not working.

  • Richard

    I imagine the teachers still teach the basics.However,if children are not motivated by parents,ambition,future,etc..Its a hopeless cause.Hopefully a percentage of these low income children can get it together and not become Government dependent in the future.

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