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Poverty mitigating factor in test scores SCHS trying to help students improve

By:Lee Pulaski - November 8, 2012


For Shawano Community High School, poverty is more of a factor in low Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination scores than race.

The school used an in-service day last month to examine the WKCE scores to understand what causes some students to score lower than others, SCHS administrators told the School Board in a report Monday night.

"We hear the term (poverty) all the time, but what is it?" Principal Scott Zwirschitz said. "We have a high number of free- and reduced-lunch kids, but what does that mean for our district?"

In statistical terms, it means quite a bit. When examining the test results for 2011, reading and math scores for students living below the poverty line were at least 22 percentage points below other students' scores. Math scores averaged 58.1 for poor students and 82.3 for other students, while the scores in reading were 64.8 and 87.6, respectively.

A lot of the gaps in test scores have traditionally been attributed to a student's race, but those gaps are smaller at SCHS, district officials said. The divide between white and American Indian students, for example, is about 10 percentage points in math scores and 1 percentage point in reading.

Zwirschitz said he originally had planned for the in-service day to be about how to improve American Indian students' scores, but when he consulted with staff at the College of the Menominee Nation, he was informed that race was less of a mitigating factor than how the students live.

"It doesn't matter what race or what gender; poverty is what affects you in education," Zwirschitz said.

District officials noted 42.5 percent of SCHS students receive free or reduced lunches, but 11.5 percent of the student population lives below the poverty level, which is $23,050 for a family of four.

What needs to happen at the high school, Zwirschitz added, is a shift in the instructional mindset, as public school models are based on the middle class. For poor students, education is more of an abstract, while day-to-day survival is the reality.

The change starts with educating the educators, said Steve Linssen, assistant principal. Many teachers lack the skills to work effectively with poorer students because they have not lived in poverty, he said.

"The idea is to look at why the student is shutting down (in the classroom) instead of just giving up on the student," Linssen said, noting that there is no perfect answer to fix every student's issues.