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Gateway community hopes to raise black students' test scores

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Gateway School District officials are working to improve black students' achievement on standardized tests.

Of the 454 black Gateway students who took Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, math and reading tests last year, 60 percent scored at a proficient level, compared to 82 percent of white students and nearly 90 percent of Asian students.

Though state standardized test scores currently have no bearing on high school graduation, that will change in 2017. Gateway officials want to improve the scores of black students by then, if not sooner.

“Professional learning communities have been established in each of the buildings to review the research and make recommendations on the research-based methodologies that would be effective in closing the achievement gap at Gateway over time,” Gateway Superintendent Nina Zetty said.

School Director Bill Bailey said too much time and money is spent categorizing students by race.

“(Students) can either perform or they can't,” said Bailey, who is black. “It just gets me at times that society tries to categorize and pigeonhole people.”

Gateway High School, Gateway Middle School and Cleveland Steward Elementary failed to meet what the state government deems annual yearly progress last year. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires testing as a year-to-year measure of student achievement in public schools.

Contrary to what some might think, black students falling behind are not always from low-income households, said Epryl King, founder of Raising Achievement in Monroeville and Pitcairn.

“It's not just an income thing,” King said. “Not all minorities are from low-income backgrounds.”

At Gateway High School, the overall reading score for the low-income category was 14 percent higher than that of the black category.

King, who was a member of a research advisory committee at the University of Pittsburgh focused on the academic achievement of black students, said there are some school districts where most students were black and/or low-income, yet their test scores exceeded the statewide average as a result of a communitywide effort and innovative teaching techniques.

King said one possible method is culturally responsive teaching. She cited the work of professor Geneva Gay, who specializes in curriculum and instruction at the University of Washington.

In “Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice,” Gay wrote, “It is based on the assumption that when academic knowledge and skills are situated within the lived experiences and frames of reference of students, they are more personally meaningful, have higher interest appeal and are learned more easily and thoroughly.”

King said an example of that method at Gateway would be a teacher choosing reading material that follows the established teaching formula, with a story line or subject matter to which minority students can relate.

There's the possibility that the problem doesn't begin in Gateway. Cheryl Boise, a Monroeville resident who founded the Commonwealth Education Organization, said she wonders how many of the students at the middle school and high school who are falling short of state standards began their education at other school districts.

“We're surrounded by districts, according to the state, that are failing,” Boise said. “Are those kids coming to us later on with problems?”

The district does not track the number of minority or low-income students who transfer to the district each year, said Sandy Rossi, the Right to Know Officer at Gateway.

Regardless of where students attended elementary school, their test scores at Gateway will affect both their futures and the future of the district.

Some have questioned the overall importance of standardized testing, rather than teaching to students' individual personalities and skill sets.

“(Standardized tests) did take away from time kids had to take elective classes,” former Gateway business teacher Andrea Campbell said. “A lot of them were taking double classes to improve testing scores.”

Zetty said that standardized testing negatively affects the educational process only when the test becomes the focus of the instruction.

“The new message we have given teachers in Gateway is to have high expectations of all students with respect to the standards; teach children how to think, be creative and innovative, problem-solve, take risks without being afraid to fail; and the tests will take care of themselves.”

Improving the academic achievement of minority and low-income students will take a group effort, King said.

“You have to have the ‘buy in' of parents as well as teachers, administrators, as well as other prominent members of the community,” she said.

Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or klawson@tribweb.com.

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