Groups highlight schools defying link between poverty, low test scores


Poverty's negative influence on student test scores remains predictably strong in Maryland, but there are hopeful exceptions, education and child advocacy groups reported yesterday.

By comparing third-grade reading scores with poverty levels school by school, the groups concluded that an academic gap widened between poor and other students from 1992 to 1994.

Reading scores remained consistently below the state standard at the growing number of schools with large populations of poor children, said Tru Ginsburg, executive director for the Maryland Education Coalition, one of the study's coordinators.

"We are not talking about a few schools or students -- we are talking about more than a quarter of the children in the state," she said.

In 1993-1994, 224 of Maryland's 797 elementary schools had populations with 45 percent or more students classified as poor, compared with 181 schools in 1991-1992, she said. From 1992 to 1994, Baltimore County's schools in this category quadrupled, from three to 12; Prince George's County's grew from 36 to 51.

The study stopped short of calling the data evidence of a trend, Ms. Ginsburg said, noting its sponsors did not attempt to determine exact links between poverty and low scores.

Instead, the sponsoring groups used it to sound a warning, challenging Maryland educators to fight to save public school funding from budget cutters and to step up efforts to overcome poverty's ill effects on learning.

"We need to look more carefully at why particular schools are more successful than others when they are all serving similar numbers of poor children," Ms. Ginsburg said during a news conference at Tench Tilghman Elementary School in Baltimore and at one later in the day at Rolling Terrace Elementary in Takoma Park -- one of the high-poverty schools with above-average scores. "School systems could do more to identify innovations that are working and to replicate those programs."

The study named 15 elementary schools that defied the generalization in 1993-1994, including Dickey Hill, Gardenville and Patapsco elementaries in Baltimore; Roye-Williams in Harford; and Walter S. Mills-Parole in Anne Arundel County.

At the schools, 45 percent or more of the students are classified as living in poverty, but many third-graders earned satisfactory reading scores on the Maryland Student Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) test.

Schools measure poverty by the number of children eligible for reduced-price and free lunches subsidized by the federal government. The number of Maryland children who participate in the lunch program rose from 192,171 in 1992 to 225,219 in 1994, Ms. Ginsburg said. About 69 percent of Baltimore City's students qualify for the program.

Statewide, 30.6 percent of all third-graders who took the MSPAP reading test in 1993-1994 earned satisfactory scores.

The poverty study determined that at elementary schools with 5 percent or fewer poor children, nearly 52 percent of third-graders earned satisfactory scores. Their numbers had increased from 47 percent in 1991-1992.

But at schools with 70 percent or more poor children, only about 8 percent of third-graders achieved the satisfactory score, down from about 11 percent in 1991-1992.

"While we have not had a chance to review the report, we recognize there is a clear correlation between poverty and poor performance in school. This is not new information," said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland schools superintendent.

"Poverty is associated with family insecurity, instability and mobility. However, poverty is not a cause of poor academic achievement," she said. "There are some schools with high rates of poverty in which children are achieving. School systems need to look at those schools where children are learning and spread those good practices to other schools."

The Maryland Education Coalition, representing education groups, parents, teachers and policy-makers, completed the study with the Maryland Kids Count project.

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