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MCAS scores appear stuck in stubborn income gap

Only scattered gains for poorest, despite huge effort

Carol R. Johnson has said across-the-board gains would require a systematic effort to help low-income families. Carol R. Johnson has said across-the-board gains would require a systematic effort to help low-income families.
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / September 25, 2011

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Educators have made only modest gains in narrowing the gulf in achievement between low-income students and those who are better off, despite aggressive reform efforts aimed at boosting classroom performance of underprivileged children.

The latest statewide MCAS scores show students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches lag the student population overall by about 20 percentage points across grades and subjects.

Scores for low-income students have crept up in the last five years, but the divide between haves and have-nots has stubbornly defied efforts to narrow it, education officials and researchers said. With state and federal programs pouring money into low-income schools and the State House granting new powers to administrators of such schools, the disparity has stirred renewed frustration.

“We’re about where we were 10 years ago,’’ Margaret Blood, president of Strategies for Children, an advocacy group for early education, said of third-grade reading scores, a key indicator of how students will progress through their school years.

Some education officials say that programs established in recent years have not had time to yield solid results, and that some inner city schools across the state have shown striking gains.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education said certain schools have made great strides, and figures show that some segments of the low-income student population have dramatically improved scores. The percentage of 10th graders who were proficient at English, for instance, rose from 48 in 2007 to 69 this year. In math, the figure climbed from 47 percent to 56 percent.

“We still have a gap in achievement, but we’ve seen steady improvement,’’ Chester said. Scores among low-income students are “much stronger today than five or 10 years ago,’’ he said.

“The evidence is there,’’ he said. “Low-performance is not preordained.’’

But in most cases, even where improvements were noted, the gaps persisted. In seventh-grade math, just 29 percent of students from low-income families scored proficient or higher on the standardized test, compared with 51 percent of all students. In third-grade English, 40 percent of low-income students were proficient, compared with 61 percent of all students.

When scores of low-income students are compared with those of wealthier students, the gap widens even more.

A Globe review found that schools with substantial numbers of low-income students are consistently failing to meet academic benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind law, with more than 60 percent falling short of standards in English, and math, and lagging well behind schools with wealthier students.

Of about 500 schools in Massachusetts that draw at least 40 percent of students from low-income families, 63 percent failed overall performance goals in math and English, according to the review. By contrast, among schools with fewer low-income students, one in four made inadequate yearly progress in both subjects.

Citing studies showing that children from low-income families often enter school far less prepared than children with more educated parents, some advocates argued for providing them with instruction well before they reach school-age.

“Otherwise, it’s very difficult to catch up,’’ Blood said.

Research has shown that most students who struggle with reading in third-grade will continue to struggle in school, and are at much greater risk of dropping out, she said. A report this year from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students “who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers.’’

On Friday, President Obama announced a new plan allowing states to apply for waivers of certain requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. Massachusetts education leaders plan to apply, saying the law’s strict requirements mislabel strong schools as falling short.

Across Massachusetts, 82 percent of schools missed testing targets this year, up from 67 percent the previous year. More than 64 percent of schools are now classified as in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring.

Critics of the approach said that while holding schools accountable has helped them improve overall, it has showed limited success in narrowing the achievement gap.

“Simply putting more pressure on schools is not necessarily the answer,’’ said Genevieve Quist, policy director for Stand for Children, an education advocacy group. “Over the past decade, the accountability approach hasn’t really given us the gains we wanted to see.’’

Others said that schools can only do so much to help low-income students, who often have difficult lives at home and come to school unprepared to learn. Many come from immigrant households where little English is spoken, or where there is no one to read to them, or help with homework. As their struggles in the classroom mount, many grow frustrated and stop trying.

“Schools can’t fix these problems on their own,’’ said Benjamin Forman, research director for MassINC, a Boston think tank.

In some city schools, Forman said, one-third of students will arrive or leave during the school year as their parents look for a new job or place to live. That causes immense instability in classrooms that makes it harder for all students to learn, he said.

Forman said families with school-age children need stable housing, a problem the schools cannot solve on their own.

“It’s foolhardy to think that school-centric reform can close the achievement gap,’’ he said.

Carol R. Johnson, superintendent of the Boston schools, agreed. She said reform efforts had yielded “pockets of breakthroughs’’ in chronically poor schools, but that across-the-board gains would require a systematic effort to help low-income families.

“It’s the only way it’s going to work,’’ she said. “We have to encircle everybody with support, not just the schools.’’

Quist, a former sixth-grade teacher in Los Angeles, said some of her students were reading at a second-grade level. But many showed dramatic improvement when challenged to do well, she said.

For that reason, schools in low-income areas may be helping students make substantial gains, even if they don’t reach proficiency.

“When you put any child in a great school with a great teacher, unbelievable things can happen,’’ she said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.