Poverty's damper on test scores - abc27 WHTM

Poverty's damper on test scores

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YORK, Pa. (WHTM) -

Education is supposed to be the great equalizer between rich and poor, but is the system failing disadvantaged children?

We went to York looking for answers.

Why York? Because the Midstate high school with the lowest test scores is there: William Penn High School. And, the high school with the highest test scores is there too, just four miles away. York Suburban High School, with great scores, has a 4.6 percent poverty rate. William Penn's poverty rate, according to the principal, is 86 percent.

"We have students who face challenges like not having power in the home or not having running water," William Penn principal Keith Still said.

Just 43 percent of Still's students test as proficient, in other words, at their grade level. Still is just in his first year as principal at the school. He's taking concrete steps to get his teens to learn. He brings teachers in each Saturday morning for students who'd like more attention. And he's mandated enrichment classes for those who don't test well.

But he says his biggest opponent is his students' home life. Many lack parental supervision and have no access to a computer, a huge disadvantage.

"That's just the reality. It's the reality," Still said.

Stanford University professor Sean Reardon is an expert on the relationship between academic achievement and family income. He worries because, he says, the achievement gap is getting worse.

"Our economy and our future as a democracy means we need people who are going to grow up and be productive and engaged, thoughtful, smart citizens ... to be employed and productive in the workforce," Reardon said.

Reardon says parents struggling in poverty often don't or can't read to their children and can't provide quality child care or preschool. Children can quickly lag behind and catching them up can be a challenge.

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq says the challenge must be met.

"It's incumbent upon the schools that we reach out at the level the child comes to us and say, give me your hand, we're going to take you through this and we're going to succeed together," she said.

How should schools do that? Would more money help?

Let's look at the numbers. William Penn, with the lowest test scores, spends $11,300 per student each year. York Suburban, with the best, spends just $300 more; about the same budget, but vastly different test scores. Remember the difference? Their poverty rate.

Many experts believe more money does need to be spent on underprivileged children, but way before high school.

"The research shows that every dollar invested in early childhood education and high quality preschool pays itself off seven fold in terms of savings for society in the future," Reardon said.

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