In this Sept. 14, 2017, file photo, students head for their buses at York Middle School in York. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

An achievement gap between Maine’s low-income students and all the rest hasn’t gone away over the past four years and has even widened slightly, an analysis of the latest year of Maine students’ standardized test scores shows.

Students from lower-income families are consistently less likely than their peers to perform at or above grade level on the state’s standardized tests, and that trend continued last school year in the fourth year of the state’s current standardized exam, the Maine Educational Assessment.

In addition, four years of Maine Educational Assessment results show that a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students in a particular district generally predicts worse results for that district.

Some 43 percent of Maine students qualified for free and reduced-price lunches last year and are considered economically disadvantaged.

In the 2018-19 school year, nearly 36 percent of all Maine students in grades three through eight and 11 performed at or above grade level in math. However, only 22 percent of low-income students did.

The gap was similar in English. Fifty-six percent of all students performed at or above grade level, while only 41 percent of low-income students met or exceeded their grade-level benchmarks.

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The previous three years of test results show a similarly sized gap between low-income students and the entire student population.

“It comes down to the concept of access,” said Lewiston school Superintendent Todd Finn, who took over the state’s second largest school department at the start of the school year. “The symptoms of poverty sometimes can prevent students from learning.”

Economically disadvantaged students might have limited access to literature in the home and limited access to technology such as high-speed internet, which can all prevent them from learning as well as their richer counterparts, Finn said.

But on a more basic level, they are also less likely to have consistent access to food and heat, and more likely to experience trauma such as family violence in their lives. As stress and anxiety from socioeconomic factors increase, students’ working memory decreases and they have a harder time than others learning and retaining information, Finn said.

In Lewiston, which has the highest number of economically disadvantaged students of any school district in the state, the achievement gap between poor students and their peers has widened over the past four years. And the city’s large population of low-income students — more than 80 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch — correlates with the city’s overall low scores on the standardized test.

In the 2015-16 school year, 22 percent of Lewiston students performed at grade level in math and 30 percent in English. The achievement levels for Lewiston’s poorer students were roughly the same that year — 22 percent for math and 28 percent for English.

However, in 2018-19, 16 percent of all Lewiston students performed at or above grade level in math, while only 9.8 percent of economically disadvantaged students met the benchmark. A nine-percentage point gap also opened up with the school department’s English scores.

Finn has planned an overhaul for Lewiston schools that will take all year and, while not aimed at improving assessment results, will result in a better district-wide academic performance, he said.

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The overhaul is centered around integrating social and emotional learning into the curriculum so all students can learn how to process their feelings, develop empathy for others, bounce back from tough situations, build relationships with peers and teachers who can help and make responsible decisions.

“If that becomes the backdrop of our day and we can interweave core curriculum into that, it’s a more effective way to move forward when you’re dealing with students who come from trauma and poverty,” Finn said. “Long term, in order to break generational poverty, the only way is through equity in education. It’s not just a catchphrase. It’s making sure that everyone in need has everything they need most.”

In Bangor, the achievement gap has actually narrowed slightly over the past four years. Bangor is the state’s third largest school district, where 55 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Even the city’s low-income students exceeded the statewide performance in math and English last year.

The city has had strategies in place for years to address the achievement gap, Superintendent Betsy Webb said.

The district hands out donated books, has high school students tutor younger students and provides after-school meal programs through local food banks to address some of the challenges poorer students face, she said.

For students who need it, Bangor offers summer and vacation-time school and scheduled time after school when they can use school computers and the internet.

“The size of your home does not determine the quality of your education,” Webb said. “It’s really about trying to have an organized way to get those resources into the hands of students.”