Poor students close reading gap with Az’s higher-income kids
But reading scores still rank among 10 worst in country
No state west of Lake Erie narrowed the achievement gap in reading between its higher- and lower-income students since 2009 more than Arizona, according to a recent federal report.
The Nation’s Report Card, released last month by the U.S. Department of Education, said that lower-income students in Arizona – those eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunch – improved their reading scores while scores for better-off students remained steady.
The income-based achievement gap shrank by three points for both fourth- and eighth-graders since the last time the 500-point federally administered test was given.
Despite the overall improvement by all students’ scores, Arizona still trails most states in reading scores across all age groups and incomes.
But state officials still welcomed the narrowing of the gap.
“Clearly we have a focus on making sure that those students that are more in need of educational assistance are going to be getting that assistance,” said Andrew LeFevre, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education.
New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania were the only other states that narrowed the gap in the past two years.
Nearly six in 10 Arizona fourth-graders and five in 10 eighth-graders qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunch. Both figures are up more than 10 percent since 2003 and among the highest rates in the country.
Since 2009, Arizona’s lower-income fourth-graders raised their average reading scores from 197 to 202 and eighth-graders’ scores climbed from 244 to 249. Higher-income students’ scores improved more slowly, from 225 to 227 for fourth-graders and 269 to 271 for eighth-graders.
But whichever income category or grade the students were in, Arizona’s reading scores still ranked among the 10 worst in the country.
“Arizona’s been below the national average and we have to see, hopefully, continued growth in the range that we have now,” LeFevre said. “We have a long way to go to really raise Arizona students into prominence across the whole national hierarchy.”
The improvement in the test results is not in and of itself proof of actual improvement, said Elizabeth Kozleski, a professor of education at Arizona State University.
“Changing numbers doesn’t necessarily mean that the deep-level work that’s required to actually change children’s performance happened,” said Kozleski, an expert in inclusive education and equity in schools.
Improving performance requires “very strong culturally responsive practices in classrooms that address the literary strengths that children bring from non-dominant cultures in schools,” Kozleski said.
She said that because the test is based on a random sample of students and schools across the country, the sampling might not reflect Arizona’s English-language learning classrooms, in addition to mainstream classrooms.
The reading and math tests were administered to a sampling of 381,300 fourth- and eighth-graders in thousands of schools across the country.
LeFevre said Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal calls the test – officially known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress – “the gold standard” for benchmarking public education in states across the country.
LeFevre said in an email that the test uses “the best science to determine the sample size and scope” in order to “mirror the student demographic population of the state.”
“I have not once heard a complaint against the way they do their testing,” he said.
Overall, Arizona’s improvements in reading scores mirror the nation’s. Both have seen little, if any, growth in scores over the past decade.
Joe Thomas, vice president of the Arizona Education Assocation, attributes this to the relatively low priority of the federal test.
“Teachers are much more into the day-to-day lives of their students,” he said.
Both Thomas and LeFevre said new academic standards like the Common Core State Standards Initiative should help increase student performance in the state in coming years.
“We can’t afford to allow more years to go by without significant growth,” LeFevre said.