Berks Education: Uneven and Unequal

Closing the achievement gap in education is considered an imperative in many circles. In communities across the country, low-income students and those with disabilities or without native English skills lag behind their counterparts in measures such as test scores.

Berks County is no exception. Looking at the key milestones of 3rd grade reading and 8th grade math, 60% of all 3rd graders and 33% of all 8th graders reached proficiency on state tests. That compares to 43% of historically underperforming 3rd graders and 17% of historically underperforming 8th graders. Historically underperforming students include students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are not English proficient, and students who receive special education services.

Ideally, a school has the resources and skills to meet the needs of every student. However, the more challenges a student brings with them, the more is required of the school to help these students perform at the same levels as those who have fewer challenges.

Historically underperforming students are not evenly distributed across Berks County districts. On one end is Reading City, with 85% of 3rd graders classified as historically underperforming. On the other end are Boyertown, Exeter, Wilson, and Daniel Boone, where historically underperforming students made up less than 40% of their 3rd graders in 2017.[1]

The size of the achievement gap also varies. When considering the average of the difference in proficiency rates on 3rd grade English Language Arts and 8th grade Math exams, the three districts with the narrowest gaps were Reading, Muhlenberg, and Tulpehocken. The three districts with the widest gaps were Fleetwood, Twin Valley, and Wyomissing.

A small gap does not necessarily mean the best outcomes for historically underperforming students. Reading, for example, has some of the most even outcomes, but also some of the lowest outcomes. In contrast, Tulpehocken had the highest 2017 proficiency levels for historically underperforming students in 8th grade math (and was 6th in the county for 3rd grade reading).

These unequal outcomes highlight the importance of looking both at the outcomes disaggregated by student group and at the difference in outcomes between groups. Often, districts that are achieving high overall outcomes may not be ensuring that those efforts lift all students. For example, Oley Valley, which was one of the top two performing districts overall for both 3rd grade English and 8th grade math had a 26 point difference between its students overall and its historically underperforming students (it did however manage to better translate its success for its 3rd graders, leading to only a 7 point difference).


Money can help make a difference in how a school district serves its more challenging students. Berks County overall spends on average $15,400 per student, an increase of 39% since 2000 (though still less than the state average). Here too, Berks has big variations across districts. At the extreme low end falls Reading, spending only $11,700, less than half of the top spending district, Antietam. Tulpehocken, a district with some of the more equal outcomes, spends over $19,000 per student.

Together, these differences lead students to have radically different educational supports, opportunities, and outcomes, depending on who they are and where they go to school. As schools work to improve educational opportunities for all students, they will no doubt continue to pay special attention, and may need to devote additional resources, to closing the achievement gap by improving outcomes for groups often left behind.


[1] Share of historically underperforming students is based on the student population that took the 3rd grade English state exam.

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