High-Poverty Schools Score Big on Ky. Assessment

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In a country where one of the strongest predictors of academic achievement is socioeconomic status, it's no surprise that Anchorage Elementary School in suburban Louisville was a top performer in reading on Kentucky's assessment.

Most students in the small, affluent community of comfortable homes and wide lawns are, like their parents before them, college bound. In Anchorage, home computers, private lessons, and summer camp are the norm.

So what of another top scorer, Wrigley Elementary School--worlds away from Anchorage in Appalachia? Poverty hits home for most children at the eastern Kentucky school, where more than 80 percent of the pupils qualify for subsidized lunches. Many parents in the mountain community of Wrigley never finished high school and work long hours for low pay in nearby timber factories and on tobacco farms.

Still, Wrigley managed to perform just behind Anchorage on the reading portion of the state test, the Kentucky Instructional Results Information System, or KIRIS, scoring third among the state's 800 elementary schools. And the school ranked fourth overall on the writing portion of the test.

An education-group official who recently compiled those and similar results from the Kentucky tests says they offer important lessons for state policymakers and educators.

'It Can Be Done'

Susan Perkins Weston, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Councils, said Wrigley Elementary's performance challenges conventional thinking on student achievement and leaves fewer excuses for administrators and teachers at low-achieving schools who view poverty as a virtually insurmountable barrier.

"These schools show us it's not impossible for high-poverty schools to meet tough standards," said Ms. Weston, who compiled the KIRIS data this spring. "It can be done."

Using the 1997-98 KIRIS scores the state released in December, her group found that Wrigley Elementary was not the only high-poverty school to perform as well as or better than its more affluent counterparts on the test.

At eight of the elementary schools scoring in the top 20 in reading, more than half of each school's students qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches, a yardstick for poverty. At 13 of the 20 top-scoring elementary schools in writing, more than half the students qualified for subsidized lunches. The same was true for 13 of the top 20 in science.

Top-scoring middle and high schools had some of the same socioeconomic mix, especially in reading and writing. Eight of the best performers on the middle school writing portion, for example, were schools where more than 50 percent of students qualified for subsidized lunches.

KIRIS tested students in grades 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, and 12. Kentucky switched to a new test, the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, this school year. CATS, which tests students in grades 4-12, is being administered for the first time this month.

High Expectations

While state officials were somewhat surprised by the school council's findings, they said the data affirmed the fundamental philosophy behind Kentucky's wide-ranging 1990 school reform law: All students can learn at high levels.

"It ties in to the philosophy of the [Kentucky] Education Reform Act and validates the premise that high expectations produce high results," said Sen. David K. Karem, a Democrat and one of the chief architects of the law. "We tried to be sure insofar as possible to level the playing field financially and give schools the resources they need."

"This [achievement data] is people saying, 'We heard you, we believe you, and we're going to take the tools you've given us and make it happen,' " he added.

That can-do attitude is just what Sandy Pelfrey, the principal of the 170-student Wrigley Elementary School, says is the key to her school's success.

"We have an energetic staff that has high expectations of every child ... [and is] willing to work, willing to change, and open to new ideas," she said. "Sure, poverty is a barrier, but you compensate.

"You have to provide for the things the child may not be getting at home," she said, by distributing books, reading to children as much as possible, and providing learning opportunities after school.

Spreading the Word

What's crucial now, Kentucky reformers say, is figuring out a way to replicate such outcomes.

"If some schools with the highest poverty rates in the country can, the next question is, why can't all the rest?" said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Kentucky citizens' group. "At the other side, high-poverty schools dominate the bottom of the list."

Mr. Sexton has spent the past several weeks interviewing principals like Ms. Pelfrey and found that their formula for success, similar to her school's, is no secret.

Principals say, "We're paying attention. We're focusing on reading. We look at test scores. We respond. We adjust. We talk to parents about reading to children,'' Mr. Sexton said. "It's things we know--nothing earth-shattering."

Through networking and assistance from state-sponsored educators--who help train teachers at low-performing schools--the Kentucky education department is intent on spreading those strategies to all high-poverty schools.

"Our emphasis in the past has been getting the strengths of the reform program in place: assessment and accountability, technology, school-based decisionmaking," said Scott Trimble, the director of accountability for the education department.

The push now, he said, is for the department to offer intensive staff development and help schools implement proven strategies that aid achievement in reading, math, science, and other disciplines.

Still, national experts, while praising Kentucky for instituting reforms that have raised student achievement across the board, say more hard work lies ahead.

"Kentucky is closing the gap between low-income kids and wealthy kids, and I laud them for it," said Amy Wilkins, a senior associate at the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group in Washington. "But they're not closing the gap between black and white kids."

While scores from the past six years of KIRIS show improvements by both races, black students have scored significantly lower than white students.

Mr. Trimble said state education officials acknowledge the race gap but have decided to stay focused on raising the achievement of all low-achieving students.

"The job ain't done yet," he said. "We don't want any group left behind."

Vol. 18, Issue 34, Pages 18, 20

Published in Print: May 5, 1999, as High-Poverty Schools Score Big on Ky. Assessment
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