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Archive for Sunday, December 19, 1999

DISTRICT SEEKS LEVEL FIELD ON TESTS

December 19, 1999

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Test results offer evidence that Lawrence schools need to focus on minority and poor students who underperform on standard tests.

Minority students in Lawrence public schools scored lower than white students on the most recent standardized reading, writing and math tests.

The same is true for students of low socio-economic status.

It's not a new phenomenon locally or nationally, but an issue Lawrence school officials are now convinced merits action.

Assistant Supt. Nettie Collins-Hart said change is needed, including broad community acknowledgment of the problem, to elevate the academic performance of blacks, Asians, Hispanics and American Indians and students from low-income households.

"In Lawrence, it's something we don't talk about," she said. "It's painful. It's uncomfortable. It's embarrassing."

Collins-Hart said she was encouraged because district staff now are "at the recognition point ... that there is a serious disparity."

No school in the district is immune.

"Each of the schools needs to be concerned," said Sandee Crowther, executive director of evaluation and planning.

Which solution?

But how best to fix the problem remains in the analysis and talking stages, though some programs already are under way.

School board member Jack Davidson said the best approach might be to aim additional resources at students of low socio-economic status (SES) rather than focusing directly on members of minority groups.

"There's just no reason why we can't figure out what we have to do and put the resources there to do it," Davidson said.

Some students in both groups perform on exams at the highest levels.

"But in the aggregate," Crowther said, "there's no question we're not reaching in the same ways the low SES and minority students."

Assessments administered in 1998-1999 and published this month illustrate gaps that exist among the district's 10,000 students.

The Lawrence district uses the Stanford 9 Achievement Assessment to measure performance in reading, math, language, science and social studies.

Nationally, the average score is 50. If a local district's score is 58.4 or more, it's considered an area of strength. If a local score is 41.6 or less, it's a weakness.

The Lawrence district's Stanford 9 reading score for seniors at Lawrence High School and Free State High School was 61.1. White seniors scored 62.7, while the score for minorities was 52.5. The score for low-SES seniors was 51.4.

Other examples:

  • Seventh-grade math. The district used the Kansas Mathematics Assessment to get a sense of reasoning, communication and problem-solving abilities of seventh-graders.

A district composite score was matched against the state's standard of excellence -- 80.

Seventh-graders at Lawrence's four junior high schools had an average score of 56.7. White students came in at 58.1. Minority students were at 49.7. For low-SES students, the score was 47.5.

  • Fifth-grade writing. The Kansas Writing Assessment evaluates students on six traits. Composite scores run from 1.0 to 5.0. The state's standard of excellence is 3.6.

In Lawrence, white students scored an average of 3.25. Minority fifth-graders earned a score of 2.99, while low-SES students had 2.95.

  • First-grade reading. The Lawrence district administered a reading inventory exam to all first-graders to find the percentage who answered 75 percent or more questions correctly.

Overall, 48.5 percent of first-graders reached that plateau on the exam's word-recognition section. Among white students, it was 52.7 percent. The number for minority students was 34.1 percent. The score for low-SES students was 27.7.

What to do?

Collins-Hart said more analysis is needed to pinpoint specific reasons minority and low-SES students in Lawrence didn't perform at the level of white students.

"We know when students don't achieve, in general, what some of the reasons could be," she said. "I don't think we know all the reasons why.

"But there's enough of a core here that we need to do some serious planning."

Davidson suggested the district collaborate with Kansas University researchers to identify the learning roadblocks.

"I don't think it would take a long time to do," he said.

Crowther said it is already known that low-SES students struggle in early school years because they often lack the educational life experiences -- being read to at bedtime, trips to museums -- generally common to students from wealthier families.

"They don't have that breadth of knowledge when they come to school," she said.

Often, she said, these children are raised by parents who don't have much formal education and are perhaps intimidated by schools or the subjects confronting their children.

"We really have to find ways for parents to feel welcome in school and help them feel comfortable, which allows them to help make their kids successful."

There have been some efforts to level the playing field. The district has expanded preschool programs and provides all-day kindergarten at Cordley, East Heights, Kennedy, New York and Riverside schools, which are attended by many of the district's lower-income students.

Federal funding supports special elementary school reading and math programs. The district is pushing for smaller class sizes. And there are programs aimed at teaching parents the importance of education.

Collins-Hart said the district's approach isn't misguided, just insufficient.

"The first step is acknowledging there is a problem. We're not pointing fingers. We're not accusing anyone of anything. We're saying we're not doing as well as what we need to do. It's time to focus."

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is tcarpenter@ljworld.com.

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