Income takes toll on school testing

Smarter Balanced test results show students from families in need struggle academically

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

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Test score data released by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office Thursday underscores the achievement gap between low-income and other students in Clark County.

Across grades and test subjects, roughly 23.7 percent fewer low-income students passed the state Smarter Balanced tests than their non-low income counterparts. Students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches are considered low-income.

Third- through eighth-grade students and high school juniors took Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts, while fifth- and eighth-grade students also took the Measurements of Student Progress in science test. High school sophomores take end-of-course tests in biology, as well.

Statewide, Smarter Balanced test scores trended downward slightly from 2016, with English scores increasing for seventh-graders. Sixth- and seventh-graders saw their math scores improve slightly, as well.

Area school districts tended to follow a similar trend, an analysis of state data shows. In Evergreen Public Schools, the county’s largest school district, English scores increased for seventh-graders with 66.9 percent passing this year’s test over 54.8 passing last year’s.

On math tests, however, more fourth-graders and high school juniors passed the Smarter Balanced test, with 54.2 percent of fourth-graders and 21.8 percent of juniors passing this year’s test. Those numbers are up from last year’s 53.2 and 13.7 percent, respectively.

But the district-wide gap across tests and grades averaged 22.9 percent for low-income students and non-low income students. Take, for example, the district’s high school juniors. Total, 68.5 percent of students passed the English assessment, while only 58 percent of low-income students passed the test. Non-low income students, however, fared far higher, with 75 percent of students passing.

Evergreen students who receive free or reduced-price lunches, a federal marker of poverty, make up 47 percent of the student body. Last year, a family of three qualified for reduced-price lunch if their annual income was $37,296, and free lunch if their annual income was $26,208.

“We know a lot of students come to school from homes that are below the poverty level, are coming to school hungry,” said Matt Handelman, chief academic accountability officer for the district.

That can make it difficult for students to focus on their academics, Handelman said.

“We’re building our ability to help the student feel safe at school, feel a sense of community in the classroom,” he said.

State policy

State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver and vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee, was not surprised by the discrepancy. Students whose families live in poverty may not have ready access to books, or they may be more responsible for younger siblings than their counterparts, driving their focus away from school, she said. It may be more likely they’re experiencing some behavior issues, or trauma at home.

“I just feel like this is stuff we already know,” she said.

The solution, then, falls to the state and Legislature to develop better resources to help low-income students catch up to their peers — but, she said, the state tends to be “historically bad” at following its own research.

“We just have to have the will to act,” she said.

Nonetheless, a news release from OSPI specified the achievement gaps between students in poverty, as well as students who move from school to school. The state is slated to submit its Every Student Succeeds Act local plan later this month, which outlines how districts and schools will be expected to narrow those gaps.

“We know that gaps exist between groups of students,” Superintendent Chris Reykdal said. “But when you add poverty, the gaps become much more pronounced. And when students move from district to district, their education is often disrupted. That shows in test scores.”

Reykdal noted, however, that test scores show only a point in time, and should not be interpreted as the last word on student success.

“State tests are a good dipstick,” he said. “They let us see a point in time, and they show us where things are going well and where improvement is needed.”