Test Data Show Disadvantaged Pupils Lag Behind More Affluent Counterparts

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Fourth graders in the nation's poorest schools are two to four levels behind their more affluent counterparts, a federal report says.

But those students appear to be improving faster in mathematics than they are in reading.

The report, released last week by the U.S. Department of Education, is based on 4th grade scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of federally mandated tests given periodically to nationally representative samples of students.

For More Information

"School Poverty and Academic Performance: NAEP Achievement in High-Poverty Schools'' is available by calling (800) USA-LEARN.

The study focused on the 16 percent to 17 percent of elementary schools nationwide that the researchers deemed to be "high poverty" schools. At those schools, three-fourths or more of the children come from families poor enough to qualify them for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program.

After narrowing for decades, the achievement gap between rich and poor schools began to widen in the late 1980s.

But the new study found that, between 1992 and 1996, 4th graders in poor schools improved their scores on the NAEP math tests by almost a full grade level.

That improvement, seen in 27 states, helped shrink the gap separating low- and high-poverty schools from 28 points in 1992 to 22 points in 1996. The poorest 4th graders, however, still lagged behind their more affluent counterparts by more than two grade levels--a gap every bit as large as it was in 1986.

Reading Trails

The achievement gap in reading is much larger. On 1996 NAEP tests in that subject, students from the poorest schools trailed students in low-poverty schools by as much as three to four grade levels, or 38 points.

Researchers say it's difficult to tell how much impoverished students have improved in that subject--if at all. On the main NAEP test, students from high-poverty schools showed little or no improvement in reading between 1992 and 1994.

But on the separate NAEP trend test, which is made up of fewer questions, pupils from disadvantaged schools showed an 8-point improvement between 1992 and 1996.

Results from the 1998 reading test, due out in January, are expected to give a more definitive picture of poor students' reading progress.

One reason that the gains in math appear to be so much clearer, the researchers said, may be the nature of the subject.

"Math is something that is attained mostly in the classroom, and reading really requires reinforcement in the home," said Valena Plisko, the study director and the division director of elementary and secondary education for the Education Department's division of planning and evaluation services.

"Also--and this is purely conjecture--it may be that part of the difference between reading and math is due to the fact that we have had national standards in mathematics since 1989, and there has been a lot of confusion around how to teach reading," she added.

The persistence of achievement gaps in both subjects, federal education officials said, highlights the need for programs such as Title I that provide added assistance to schools with high concentrations of poor students.

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Page 5

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Test Data Show Disadvantaged Pupils Lag Behind More Affluent Counterparts
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