Attempting to close educational gaps! Part 1: Lowell Elementary School

Mike Preiner
2 min readNov 20, 2020

We previously analyzed the feasibility of closing educational gaps at low-income schools in Seattle. We found that by combining math interventions over several years, it should be possible (in theory) to completely close math attainment gaps by 5th grade in most schools.

I’m now working on a program to put that theory into practice, and I’m super excited about it. This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll lay out many of the gory details. I’ll begin by describing the school that I’m working with: Lowell Elementary School. I’m doing this project in collaboration with University Tutors for Seattle Schools.

Demographics

Students at Lowell are far more disadvantaged than the average Washington student across almost every dimension, including family income, homelessness, native language skills, and disabilities. This 2017 article from KUOW describes many of the challenges that students at Lowell face, and in the chart below we compare Lowell’s demographics to the average of the entire Seattle Public School district.

Demographic comparison of Lowell Elementary School to district averages for the 2019–20 school year. A student is defined as “mobile” if they were enrolled in a school for less than 150 days during the calendar year. Data is from OSPI and be accessed here.

Academics

Washington uses the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) standardized tests for grades 3 through 5. In 2018–19, Lowell 5th graders scored in the 28th percentile in the math portion of the test, and in the 86th percentile in the reading portion. If you compare Lowell to schools with similar fractions of low-income students, the results are actually pretty impressive: they are in the 56th percentile in math, and in the 99th percentile for reading, though there is quite a bit of variability in Lowell’s scores from year-to-year. The charts below show how 2018–19 5th grade class at Lowell compared to every other school in the state. In general, Lowell tends to be stronger in English than in math.

Percent of students meeting standard in the math and English portions of the SBA for every 5th grade class in Washington state, plotted as a function of the fraction of low-income students. Dot size is proportional to the number of students in each 5th grade class. The dashed line shows quadratic fits as a function of low-income fraction. Lowell is shown in orange, and the light orange box highlights schools that have low-income fractions within 5% of Lowell’s.

What does it all mean?

Despite Lowell’s good relative performance, less than 40% of the 5th graders are meeting the standards in math. This means that around 26 students are failing the math portion of the SBA every year. At the wealthiest schools in the state, 80–100% of the students typically meet standards. Is it crazy to think we can get Lowell to the top of the state in math in an absolute sense? Maybe. The goods news is that if can be successful at Lowell we can probably be successful in any school!

In the next post I’ll lay out the approaches we’re trying and why we think they could work.

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Mike Preiner

PhD in Applied Physics from Stanford. Data scientist and entrepreneur. Working to close education gaps in public schools.