At Merrill Elementary School in Rock Falls, fewer than half the students met federal standards, according to test results released Thursday.
From 2012 to 2013, the number of students proficient in both reading and math fell from 54 percent to 44 percent.
That makes it the lowest among elementary schools in Whiteside and Lee counties.
But there's another number worth considering: The Rock Falls elementary school district had the highest number of students considered low-income – 77 percent.
That's at least 10 percentage points more than in the Sterling and Dixon elementary schools, with the exception of Sterling's Jefferson, which is at 69 percent.
Rock Falls Elementary Superintendent Dan Arickx said the data show that more of his district's children are low-income, but "we're not using that as a crutch."
"Our families have a lot more to think about than to make sure homework is done every night," Arickx said. "Every family, regardless of income, probably has things going on, but low-income families have more intense issues to worry about."
The district, he said, tries to work with families the best it can.
"We help students after-hours," Arickx said. "We help them get as much done at school as possible, so we can alleviate the stress at home."
Students are helped after school during what teachers are treating as study halls, Arickx said. Some students, he said, don't have access to technology at home, so they need extra help.
"Teachers have been absolutely wonderful about it," he said.
The drop in ratings over the past year at Merrill Elementary, Arickx said, was because the school is now focusing on the common core standards, which are being applied nationally and focus on math and reading. As such, he said, the district is shifting attention away from the ISAT exam, which is the basis for the ratings.
Overall, the high schools in Sauk Valley's smaller towns have higher ratings than those in Sterling, Dixon and Rock Falls.
This year, 57 percent of Sterling High School students are rated as proficient in reading and math. Dixon and Rock Falls high schools follow at 54 and 53 percent, respectively.
Morrison is tops in the area with a 68 percent proficiency in its high school. Amboy, Erie and River Bend are tied at 67 percent, while AFC follows with 62 percent.
Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico trails at 46 percent among the smaller school districts.
But it also has the highest number of low-income students, with 47 percent. At the same time, its elementary schools' ratings are about the same as the other smaller districts – and, in some cases, higher.
One challenge in the P-L-T district is that it has a higher mobility rate – 18 percent – than the other smaller districts. That rate tracks students who transfer in and out of the district from the first day of October to the last day of school.
The low-income and mobility rates "explain a lot of things," P-L-T Superintendent David Rogers said.
In the past couple of years, he said, the district has put in place a few programs that would pay off in the next year.
One of the programs is for tutoring. Another deals with homework, known as Prophet Pride.
"If you don't have your homework done, you're not doing lunch with your friends," Rogers said.