Students at Robbins Elementary work in groups during a math lesson about scale. (Photo by Sydney Johnson/EdSource)

California school districts have long struggled with a persistent gap in math test scores between racial and ethnic groups. But at one small rural school district, the gap between Latino and white students has narrowed more than it has at most districts in the state.

At Winship-Robbins Elementary School District, a single-school district in south Sutter County, the percentage of Latino students meeting or exceeding standards on the Smarter Balanced math test more than doubled over the last five years. And although their scores still slightly trail those of their white peers, the gap between them has narrowed by nearly 16 percentage points during that time.

One of the main reasons for the improved scores is a change in the way teachers talk to their students about math, said officials at Robbins Elementary, the district’s one school. Starting last school year, teachers focused on creating more opportunities for students to talk through word problems with each other and build their ability to recognize and apply math terms, rather than relying on rote memorization.

The shift has made math at Robbins Elementary more social — and that’s intentional. During a recent morning math lesson, students in Mayra Medina’s 6th-grade math lesson were buzzing with group discussion about how scaling shapes up and down relates to size and proportion.

“If students aren’t talking about their math learning, they won’t have retention,” said Kim Richter, curriculum and instruction coordinator for Winship-Robbins Elementary School District. “Our English learners particularly need that opportunity to think and read out loud and collaborate with a partner who can support them.”

In the spring of 2015, California began administering Smarter Balanced assessments, annual standardized tests in math and English language arts aligned with the Common Core standards. Last school year, 39.7 percent of all California students met or exceeded state standards in math, an increase of about 1 percentage point from the year before.

While the average statewide math score was low, the scores for some student groups were even lower. Statewide, the scores of Latino and African American students on the Smarter Balanced math test trailed those of their white and Asian peers, a chronic pattern known as the achievement gap. California adopted the Common Core standards in 2010 in part to close that gap and the changes Robbins Elementary teachers made as they implemented them point to practices that might be working.

Nestled between rivers and farmland north of Sacramento, Robbins Elementary serves about 120 students in grades K-8. Overall, nearly 80 percent of the overall student population is Latino. And about 4 in 5 students at the school are low-income, according to data from the Department of Education. About 40 percent are English learners and many others speak a language other than English at home, including Spanish, Russian and Arabic, according to Dawn Carl, principal and superintendent.

Creating more opportunities to share out loud and learn from one another while solving math problems is intended to support students from all language backgrounds, Richter said, not only the school’s English learners. But many factors beyond the classroom create difficult hurdles for the school’s low-income students.

“Our town is poor and rural. We don’t have a public library and many of our students don’t have internet at home,” she added. “We have a store where you can buy beer and bait, but you can’t buy fresh vegetables.”

The new Common Core math standards require significant shifts in instruction, such as emphasizing math concepts over memorizing facts and procedures. After seeing a dip in math test scores a few years after the district began implementing the Common Core standards, staff met every other Wednesday last school year to review and refine its approach to math.

They noticed their math lessons were missing what Richter describes as “productive struggle,” where students can work through challenging problems and mistakes, rather than providing each step and answer. “The rigor just wasn’t there,” she said.

Without the money to send teachers to professional learning events, teachers spent the afternoons working together through “Visible Learning,” a book-based program with strategies for teachers to evaluate their own teaching practices. They also attended free math instruction workshops at UC Davis.

The work is starting to pay off. Among all students at the school, the number meeting or exceeding state standards for math went from 43 percent in 2017-18 to more than half last school year.

“By making sure we were teaching not only content, but also academic language changed everything for us, especially our English learners,” Richter said.

The new focus on language shows up in different ways. Medina started her recent math lesson by first introducing a word problem to students, who read the question out loud. Then students, who worked in groups of four, entered into a discussion about how they would solve the problem. After the students worked through their ideas, Medina then modeled how to approach the problem by walking through key steps. Finally, the students took turns sharing how they got to their answers.

“The way I learned, teachers would model how to solve a problem and there was a big focus on speed. But we didn’t get a lot of time to work through problems together,” Medina said. “This is much more collaborative-based learning. It prompts discussion so students can share strengths and experiences.”

Also starting this year, each lesson has a language objective, or terms and phrases that students should know at the end of class. That is paired with a content objective, meaning the academic material that students should come away understanding and a social objective such as problem-solving with peers. Teachers outline the objectives for students during class and keep them visible on the whiteboard for reference.

“Every time we plan the objectives, we unpack the standards again and again,” Richter said. “Before, it was easy for teachers to follow the book if they didn’t know what they were doing. Now, they have to really get into the math concepts when lesson planning.”

Medina said the Wednesday math meetings last year helped her learn how to facilitate discussions instead of giving students the answer. She also learned ways to integrate math vocabulary more seamlessly in lessons by letting students know when they are practicing mathematical concepts, such as ratios and proportional relationships.

Each morning, students who need extra help in math or writing also attend a small 30-minute class focused on those subjects. Every six weeks, staff review student performance data to determine if they need additional support, such as smaller breakout groups that focus on specific math concepts.

The school is still working through some lingering challenges. In January, the district purchased new math textbooks to better align with the shifts teachers were making in the classroom, and they are still getting familiar with the new materials.

And due to its small size, the school has uneven enrollment in grade levels, resulting in three classes that combine different grade levels at the school. Richter said, “It’s hard to do this kind of specific instruction when you’re dealing with two grades.”

Since 2014-15, the first year of the Smarter Balanced test, the percentage of California’s Latino students who met or exceeded standards on the math test increased from 21 to 28 percent, a larger rate of increase than the state’s white and Asian students. However, a wide achievement gap persists.

“The gap for Latino students is still huge, and that’s troubling,” said Patricia Gándara, a research professor at UCLA and co-director the Civil Rights Project, a research and policy institute that analyzes racial inequities in public education.

The slight increase in math scores among Latino students could reflect positive trends in the economy, but it could also reflect negative trends in the student population, Gándara said.

“We have people leaving and being deported and the ones who leave are the ones who are most stressed,” said Gándara, referring to students who experience trauma and threats of deportation and how that can impact academic performance. “That could change the composition of who takes the test.”

Staff at Robbins say there’s still more work to be done.

“It makes us proud that the things we have chosen to focus on are making a difference. But we aren’t where we need to be yet,” Richter said. “And we definitely aren’t sitting back, that’s for sure.”

Story originally published by EdSource.