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)

Income Inequality Tears the Social Fabric and Undermines School Achievement

Inequality, Unbelievably, Gets Worse,” declared Steven Rattner two weeks ago on the op ed pages of the NY Times.  He points to data released by the Federal Reserve documenting that, “Inflation-adjusted earnings of the bottom 90 percent of Americans fell between 2010 and 2013, with those near the bottom dropping the most.  Meanwhile, incomes in the top decile rose.”  Rattner attributes much of the problem to our tax laws: “And income taxes for the highest-earning Americans have fallen sharply, contributing meaningfully to the income inequality problem.  In 1995, the 400 taxpayers with the biggest incomes paid an average of 30 percent in taxes; by 2009, the tax rate of those Americans had dropped to 20 percent.

Rattner worries that dropping tax rates on the citizens with the greatest capacity to pay are tearing the fabric of our society: “Lower taxes means less for government to spend on programs to help those near the bottom… The United States, which is the only developed country without a national paid parental leave policy, also has no mandated paid holidays or annual vacation; in Europe, workers are guaranteed at least 20 days and as many as 35 days of paid leave.”  Rattner notes that even the International Monetary Fund has “suggested that a more equal distribution of income could… raise the growth rate because of the added access to education, health care and other opportunities.”

When people with the means to pay taxes are excused from that civic responsibility it does mean less spent on public education.  As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues to remind us, 30 states are, in inflation-adjusted dollars, still spending less on public schools than before the 2008 recession.  There is also substantial evidence that the growing divide between families with means and those in dire need is affecting public school achievement in other ways.

For one thing residential housing patterns track the growing income divide.  Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon, who studies housing segregation, has documented that by 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income.  The strongest trend is the increasing residential isolation of the rich.

Reardon has also demonstrated  that along with growing residential inequality is a rapidly growing income-inequality school achievement gap between the children in richest ten percent and the children in the poorest ten percent, a gap that is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.  Today the income inequality achievement gap is twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.  Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, who have studied the educational consequences of income inequality add that, “Among children growing up in relatively affluent families, the four-year college graduation rate of those who were teenagers in the mid-1990s was 18 percentage points higher than the rate for those who were teenagers in the late 1970s.  In contrast, among children from low-income families, the graduation rate was only 4 percentage points higher for the later cohort than for the earlier one.”  Duncan and Murnane conclude: “By widening the gap in educational opportunities between children from low-and higher-income families, increasing income inequality jeopardizes the upward socioeconomic mobility that has long held our pluralistic democracy together.  Improving educational outcomes for children growing up in low-income families is therefore critical to the national’s future and requires a combination of policies that support low-income families and measures to improve the quality of schools that low-income children attend.”

In a Thanksgiving message on his blog at Chicago Theological Seminary the Rev. John Thomas, retired general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, lists some of the economic policies that have contributed to growing inequality and that could be adjusted to help those struggling at the bottom of our economy:  “The list of sins is long: Trade policy that moved jobs out of the U.S., refusal to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, deregulation of financial institutions that led, in significant measure, to the Great Recession, stripping rights from public employee unions and scaling back benefits of retirees to pay for the misdeeds of politicians who grossly underfunded pensions, the refusal of policy makers to provide adequate job stimulus or address the housing foreclosure crisis while bailing out large financial institutions, the explosive growth of the influence of money in politics…, the radical inequality of public school funding, tax codes that benefit investors over wage earners, corporations over individuals, the refusal of many states to expand Medicaid, and the continuing assault on the Affordable Care Act…  The descent of the working class into near or complete poverty is no accident.  It is willful policy and willful indifference—private and governmental—and as its corrosive effects creep across our economy the health of our democratic society is increasingly challenged.”