New Illinois Analysis: Test Scores Correlate with School’s Economic Level, Not School’s Quality

States like my own state of Ohio that assign letter grades (A-F) to schools and school districts base these rankings pretty much on the standardized test scores of the students.  Test scores—with high school graduation rates sometimes added to the algorithm that determines the grade—are understood as the way to measure school quality.  The “A” school is the one with high test scores and the “F” school is the one with the low test scores.

Every time the Plain Dealer publishes the list of school district grades, I wonder how readers just swallow the story as though it is the gospel truth.  The “A” districts are, after all, concentrated in the wealthy exurbs.  The “F” districts are the Cleveland City Schools and a handful of inner ring suburban school districts.  And, like other states, Ohio uses the same metrics for grading its school teachers.  The metric we have chosen encourages us to believe that good teachers cluster in rich school districts and bad teachers cluster in poor school districts.  We are told by the “school reformers” that if we just got rid of the bad teachers, test scores everywhere would rise.

What all this is doing across the metropolitan areas that have adopted the A-F grades (a policy recommended, by the way, by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and piloted in Florida when Jeb Bush was the governor there) is exacerbating segregation by economics and also by race.  Here is what Richard Rothstein told the audience when he spoke at the Cleveland City Club in February:  “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools.  And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools.  Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F’…. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that.  And so if you label schools with ‘A-F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A-F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

This week  a new analysis in metropolitan Chicago by WBEZ and the Daily Herald reconfirms Rothstein’s conclusion and what a large body of academic research has demonstrated over the years: the family poverty among students in public school in the Chicago area is growing rapidly; the number of schools in segregated areas with highly concentrated poverty is growing; and test scores are primarily an indicator of the aggregate economic level of the school.  A school’s high test scores correlate with a low level of family poverty among the students while a school’s low test scores correlate with an increased amount and concentration of poverty in a school community.

“Our analysis shows a vast expansion of poverty—2,244 schools have seen their proportion of low-income students increase by at least 10 percentage points over the last decade.  And the number of schools struggling with concentrated poverty—where nearly every child in the school is low-income has ballooned (from 421 schools in 2004 to 649 in 2014).  But perhaps most troubling, WBEZ and the Daily Herald find that poverty remains a frustratingly accurate predictor of how well schools will perform.  Schools full of middle class kids rarely perform below average on state tests; schools made up of low-income kids rarely score above.  In fact, test score data in Illinois indicate that the degree to which poverty is tied to school performance is slightly stronger than it was a decade ago—despite reforms that have included school re-staffings, closures, consolidations, new state standards and more stringent guidelines for evaluating teachers.” “(A) graph of 10 years of state test score data paints a picture of near-perfect stratification.  Schools with the fewest poor students score the highest on average.  Schools’ scores go consistently down from there as the proportion of low-income students in a school goes up.  The pattern holds for every income level over every year for the past decade—for both elementary and high schools.”

Greg Duncan, professor of economics at the University of California at Irvine and an expert on the impact of poverty, inequality, and growing residential segregation by income  on school achievement, is quoted in the new Illinois report: “(L)ow-income kids are more likely to have low-income neighbors, high-income kids high-income neighbors.  What that means for schools is quite troubling.”  The reporter continues: “Duncan… says that with affluent parents now spending $10,000 per child per year on enrichment for their children—everything from music lessons to summer camps to private tutoring—the burden on schools to keep low-income kids learning at the same pace as upper-income kids has increased very substantially.  He stresses that scores have improved for all children since the 1970s—including poor children.  But upper-income children’s scores have improved more, widening the gap.”

The most conclusive research on the correlation of poverty and school achievement is the demographic data of Sean Reardon at Stanford University. Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In an excellent new book, Our Kids, Robert Putnam explores the many ways widening inequality and segregation by income affect children and their educational prospects. Putnam adds another important factor that likely affects the sense of hope or despair pervading schools increasingly segregated by family income level: the widening disparity in family assets. “Growing inequality in accumulated wealth is particularly marked…. Even taking into account the losses of the Great Recession, the net worth of college-educated American households with children rose by 47 percent between 1989 and 2013, whereas among high school-educated households, net worth actually fell by 17 percent during that quarter century.  Parental wealth is especially important for social mobility because it can provide informal insurance that allows kids to take more risks in search of more reward.” (Our Kids, 36)

8 thoughts on “New Illinois Analysis: Test Scores Correlate with School’s Economic Level, Not School’s Quality

  1. Jonathan Kozol has been writing about this since the late 60s. Perhaps his most poignant comment that has turned out to be sadly true is when he wrote, “I used to think I could make a difference, but now all I can do is stand by and observe.” Oh, how long, Lord, must we wait.

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