New Educational Approach Fixes Seemingly Impossible Problem: Lifting Scores for Low-Income Students


HOLLISTON, MASSACHUSETTS – For nearly as long as there have been standardized tests, educators have noticed a disturbing fact: Low-income students’ test scores are far lower on average than middle and higher-income students. Despite various efforts to fix it, over the past 30 years this “income achievement gap” has increased nationally by 40 percent.

This gap costs the U.S. economy an estimated $2.3 trillion dollars in lost opportunities each year, puts millions of students at risk for drop-outs, jail, and addiction, and makes some experts wonder if it’s still true that anyone in America can rise up simply through education and hard work.

While public schools in Massachusetts perform at the very top nationally in many areas, the Commonwealth struggles like the rest of the country to raise the proficiency scores of its low-income students.[i] On average the scores of low-income students have remained flat or increased no more than the rest of the population.  In order to narrow the gap, we must not only raise the scores of low-income students, but raise them at a much faster pace.  Until now, this has seemed impossible. An expert recently told a national gathering of school superintendents that until geographic segregation ended, “we will never narrow the achievement gap.”[ii]

The elementary schools that partner with one Massachusetts-based nonprofit group, however, are closing the gap—and fast. The Bay State Reading Institute (BSRI), now in its tenth year, partners with over 40 elementary schools in the Commonwealth.  2014 MCAS results show that low-income students at BRSI’s partner schools are progressing many times faster than the state average in English Language Arts on at least three different measures.

At BSRI’s highest implementing schools, for instance, fifty percent more low-income students scored Advanced on ELA tests than the state average.[iii] On the Composite Performance Index (CPI) from 2012-2014, low-income students at BSRI’s high-implementing schools progressed at more than four times the state average[iv], and the Student Growth Percentile (SGP) for low-income students rose by more than six times the state average.[v]

And this doesn’t refer to a handful of students—it includes districts with twice the state average of low-income students, such as Fitchburg, Malden, and Revere. At Crocker Elementary School in Fitchburg, for instance, with twice as many low-income students as the state average, 27% of low-income students scored Advanced on the English Language Arts portion of MCAS in 2014, whereas the state average was 6%.  So despite twice the low-income population, they propelled more than four times the state average to the top level in MCAS.

The Salemwood School in Malden, meanwhile, which is 68% low income (versus the state average of 37.5%), had more than ten times the rate of improvement on Composite Performance for low-income students: 58% improvement since 2012, whereas the state average is 5%. Beachmont Elementary in Revere, a Level-One school despite more than double the state average of low-income students, improved its Composite Performance for low-income students by 70%, which is more than 14 times the state average.

“We’ve been on a systemic plan to constantly close achievement gaps in Revere for a number of years,” says Superintendent Paul Dakin.  “It starts with a belief system in the district and the community that all kids can be successful.”

“This is just a reminder of what I tell people all the time,” says Fitchburg Superintendent Andre Ravenelle.  “Every student can overcome any challenge, including poverty. They will rise to any bar we set.”

These schools achieved these outstanding gains without any of the drastic measures some experts advocate, such as state takeovers, union-busting, or teacher firings. Instead they start with the premise that, as BSRI co-founder Ed Moscovitch says, “most teachers want to be exceptional—they just need the right kind of help.” Too often the colleges and universities that train teachers don’t give them the classroom skills they need.  Once in the classroom, teachers usually get their “professional development” in the form of off-site workshops that studies have been proven to be ineffective. And it’s just as difficult for principals to improve their job skills. These issues are particularly challenging in districts that serve low-income populations, where students are more likely to be new to English, lacking exposure to reading, or homeless.

BSRI addresses these problems on many levels, often simultaneously.  They put literacy and principal coaches—all former master teachers and principals—into the schools, where they demonstrate research-backed methods and support their implementation.  BSRI shows teachers how to use small groups, give students quick data assessments, assign instruction that’s differentiated to the ability of each student, and collaborate with other teachers and specialists.  BSRI creates professional development that is targeted to the needs of the school, then supports it in the classroom.  Through those assessments, principals can track the progress of individual students and staff, and make data-backed decisions about what’s working and what’s not.

“For years in education,” Ravenelle says, “we educators often threw things at the wall to see what might stick, but had no way of knowing what was sticking, or why. One of the big components of BSRI is assessing student progress with quick tests, looking at the data, and changing the teaching based on what the data says. Now we know what’s working and what needs changing in every classroom, for every student. We look at the data and ask, ‘What do they need to go to the next level?’”

Because students are now working on assignments tailored to their abilities, they feel more successful, more challenged, and more involved. This leads to a decline in discipline problems, which gives principals more time to be educational leaders. The entire culture of the school improves. Teachers, specialists, and administrators collaborate, and students accomplish things previously thought impossible.  And compared to most other school-improvement options, BSRI does this at a fraction of the cost.

“We first introduced BSRI eight years ago in Beachmont Elementary,” says Revere Superintendent Dakin. “After a year or two, Beachmont went from one of the bottom-testing schools in the district to the top.  Other principals started noticing that, and brought BSRI into their schools.  BSRI has been one of the foundations of our progress.”

“You can’t do this work alone,” says Ravenelle. “You need partners.”

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[ii] Richard Rothstein, a senior fellow at the UC Berkeley School of Law, at a 2013 meeting of the American Association of School Administrators.

[iii] 9% vs 6%

[iv] 23% BSRI versus 5% state avg.

[v] According to the Massachusetts Dept of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), SGP measures a student’s progress relative to the progress of other students with similar MCAS performance histories from across the state. 18.5% at high-implementing BSRI schools (60% of schools, those which internal surveys show are most faithful to the BSRI model) vs. 2.8% statewide. Because growth can only be measured in relation to a previous year of testing, this applies to 4th & 5th graders.