Howe Avenue Elementary School, the largest elementary school in the San Juan Unified School District, is in a threadbare neighborhood of strip malls, faded homes and aging apartments.
More than half of the 713 students are English learners, and nearly all are from low-income families. Seventy-three students are refugees, many from war-torn nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
So district officials said they weren’t surprised when they learned that only 7 percent of Howe Avenue students met statewide standards in math and only 9 percent in English in test results released this month.
Despite longtime efforts to reduce the achievement gap between rich and poor students in California, the divide grew much wider under the state’s new testing system, according to a Sacramento Bee review of state data released this month. About 21 percent of economically disadvantaged students in California met state math standards under the new Smarter Balanced Assessment System, compared with 53 percent of all other students.
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That means the percentage of wealthier students meeting state standards is about 2.5 times higher than the percentage of economically disadvantaged students. By comparison, under the previous testing system used in 2012, the percentage of students scoring “proficient” was about 1.5 times higher for wealthier students than for poor students.
The new statewide exam is based on Common Core standards, a national set of guidelines intended to promote critical thinking, analytical writing and problem-solving skills. Students often must combine several skills to correctly answer questions, and memorization is less valuable. Students, regardless of income level, fared worse than under the previous testing system, but low-income schools suffered the steepest performance declines.
In the Sacramento region, the top 50 performing schools on the math exam were largely concentrated in upper-middle-class suburbs such as Davis, Folsom, El Dorado Hills, Roseville and Rocklin, as well as a handful of wealthier neighborhoods in Sacramento and Elk Grove. The bottom 50 were almost entirely in impoverished areas in the city and county of Sacramento.
The results paint an accurate picture of the disparity between the college and career preparedness of low-income and minority students and the rest of the state’s students, said Ryan Smith, executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on improving low-income and minority student achievement.
“This test is absolutely a call to action to have policymakers, civil rights leaders and educators working together to close the achievement gap,” he said.
In the Sacramento region, 30 percent of economically disadvantaged students met English standards on the latest Common Core tests, compared with 63 percent of wealthier students. About 23 percent of economically disadvantaged students met math standards, compared with 53 percent of wealthier students.
At Howe Avenue, administrators and teachers say housing and job insecurity have resulted in an unstable population, with students moving in and out of the school each day. Parents with multiple jobs often have trouble getting their kids to school, making attendance spotty.
Academic gaps can be even more pronounced because low-income students also generally have less access to extracurricular activities like travel, concerts and summer camps.
Some experts suggest a technology divide may also be at play. The Smarter Balanced tests are administered on computers with interactive questions, while the previous exams were on paper and often involved bubble sheets.
“A lot of kids that don’t have a lot of technology at home have scores that reflect their unfamiliarity with keyboarding,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. “(This) artificially depressed their scores.”
Parent pressure also plays a part in student success. Middle- and higher-income schools often face more pressure from parents and unions to improve test scores, said David Plank of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research center based at Stanford. “In middle-class districts, the parents aren’t going to put up with low scores,” he said. “The pressure is less, certainly, in districts with poor families.”
Schools in low-income neighborhoods were more likely to take a teach-to-the-test strategy to avoid sanctions under No Child Left Behind, which relied on test scores to measure performance, Darling-Hammond said. Such schools need more time to adjust to the new standards and testing system.
“Schools are making the instructional shift,” she said. “Some are farther along than others.”
Howe Avenue Elementary is catching up. Under the old state standards, teachers “watered down” the curriculum for English learners, giving them simpler vocabulary words and assignments, Principal Kathryn Ferreira said. “It didn’t help.”
Last school year, Ferreira enlisted WestEd, a nonprofit research, development and service agency, to help her teachers learn to teach the more rigorous Common Core standards to English learners. A consultant is expected to come at least 12 times this year to work with teachers.
Now, teachers at Howe Avenue Elementary are moving through curriculum more slowly, looking at one paragraph or one page instead of an entire chapter during a lesson. The idea is to dig deeper and to spend more time explaining a concept, instead of moving on before students fully comprehend the material.
The school integrates specialized instruction for English learners into all of its lessons, plus a 30-minute session of concentrated teaching for just English learners each day, Ferreira said.
“What’s good for English learners works for all students,” said teacher Lindsay Goettsch, who teaches a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class at the school.
Last week, the teacher moved across the classroom reading “The One and Only Ivan,” a story about a gorilla performing in a shopping mall circus, to the 34 students in her class.
Goettsch held up a whiteboard with the word “I predict ...” written on it. “Predict what will happen with Ivan and share it with your partner,” she told the class. After a moment of silence while the students pondered the question, the room buzzed with whispers as students excitedly bounced ideas for the conclusion to the book off their classmates.
To meet the needs of all students in the 12 reading levels in her class, Goettsch pulls students aside for group and one-on-one instruction, while other students lounge on the carpet or sit at their desk independently reading and filling out reading journals. Students select books labeled with letters indicating the appropriate reading level from multicolored tubs on the perimeter of the classroom.
Ferreira bristled when asked if the test was simply too hard for some students. “Who are we to say a 5-year-old isn’t going to college?” she said. “We have to prepare them for the choice.”
Common Core, which is meant to prepare students for college and career, is supposed to be rigorous for all students, Ferreira said. “They need to be able to struggle through the same materials as the other kids,” she said.
She said it is important that students move out of the English learner designation by junior high so they can take electives instead. If that doesn’t happen, they are likely to struggle in high school, she said. “By that time, they don’t have a choice,” she said.
Education experts agree that more research is necessary to find out which teaching practices are the most effective with high-need populations and that low-income students need more resources. The state is in the third year of an eight-year program that directs more money to schools with a high number of English learners, foster children and students from impoverished families.
Both Darling-Hammond and Plank are optimistic the scores overall will improve and the achievement gap will narrow as students from low-income families become more familiar with technology and the test.
“The test is new to all of us,” Ferreira said. “Now that we know a little more, we can better prepare students.”