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)

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Robert Putnam’s New Book Makes Us See the Invisible Dynamics of Widening Inequality

Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is an important book.  It has been criticized a bit by social science reviewers because it doesn’t challenge the power and money behind the politics that have created the problems it describes, but I would guess that Putnam’s purpose is different.  This is a book written to make us see what is invisible to most of us: “Ultimately, growing class segregation across neighborhoods, schools, marriages (and probably also civic associations, workplaces, and friendship circles) means that rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping-stones to upward mobility—college going classmates or cousins or middle-class neighbors, who might take a working-class kid from the neighborhood under their wing.” (p. 41) The book is written for a popular—not an academic—audience to illuminate the social science research on which it is based.

While most of us will notice a new stadium or a new convention center or revitalization downtown, we are less likely to see that a neighborhood or community is changing demographically and we are likely to be blind to the social dynamics at work or the meaning of the change until perhaps years later.  Putnam turns our attention directly to growing inequality in the institutions that matter to children: the family, the parents’ marriage and parenting style, the school, the neighborhood.

I confess that my own fascination with Our Kids is my interest in public school inequality and our society’s wrong headed approach to addressing achievement gaps.  After all, Putnam’s book is evidence that the great wave of standardized testing, sanctions for so-called “failing” schools, and privatization of schools cannot possibly address the primary cause of achievement gaps: rapidly widening economic inequality and segregation by family income. Putnam explains, “Our contemporary public debate recognizes this problem but assumes it is largely a ‘schools problem.’ On the contrary we have seen that most of the challenges facing poor kids are not caused by schools.” (p 231)  Schools, according to Putnam’s research, are sites where we can observe inequality but not its primary cause: “In fact, all of the factors that we’ve discussed so far in this book—family structure, parenting, childhood development, peer groups, extracurricular opportunities—have contributed to the widening gap in college graduation rates in recent decades, along with the neighborhood and community influences….” (pp. 188-189)

Four years ago the Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon published two studies that startled people watching trends in public school achievement.  Reardon documents that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas 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, and is now twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.  Putnam quotes Reardon’s research and then he explains what it means in the daily lives of families and children.

I describe Reardon’s conclusions again and again in this blog, because I think we all have to pay attention, but nobody—until Putnam published Our Kids last week—has figured out how to help people understand the meaning of these statistics. If we live in a metropolitan area, we may realize demographic changes are happening, assuming we are paying close attention, but we very likely won’t understand exactly what’s changing.  If we return to our hometown, we may notice that things have changed, but we are not likely to think about the magnitude of a change such as a factory’s closing, for example, and the meaning of that plant shutdown for the community’s need to shift its economic base and what that might mean for the families, the neighborhoods, and the schools.  That is why my favorite part of the book is Putnam’s first chapter  about the changes Putnam noticed, and subsequently researched, when he returned to his hometown, Port Clinton, Ohio.  This chapter was excerpted in an August 3, 2013 piece by Putnam in the NY Times, Crumbling American Dreams.  Putnam’s reflection on Port Clinton demonstrates what you might find if you were to return to the community where you grew up and assemble the data to show you how times have really changed for the children now living where you spent your own childhood.

Putnam traces widespread widening income inequality within and across all racial and ethnic groups: “The gap corresponds, roughly speaking, to the high-income kids getting several more years of schooling than their low-income counterparts.  Moreover, this class gap has been growing within each racial group, while the gaps between racial groups have been narrowing….” (p. 161) The book illustrates the meaning of the data it presents with detailed profiles of children and adolescents, stories gathered in ethnographic qualitative research conducted by a team led by Jennifer M. Silva.

After chapters that examine what has happened to the family, the school, and the community and after the stories of families in communities across the United States, Putnam asks us to step back to look again at the big picture: “This up-close-and-personal focus runs the risk that we miss the deeper connection between the opportunity gap and growing income inequality. From Port Clinton to Philadelphia, and from Bend (Oregon) to Atlanta to Orange County, economic disparities among the families have been an important part of each story.  In every movement of this composition the deep, throbbing, ominous bass line has been the steady deterioration of the economic circumstances of lower-class families, especially compared to the expanding resources available to upper-class parents.” (p. 227)

The book’s one serious flaw is Putnam’s sketchy understanding of school finance.  He quotes economic studies that allege that school finance disparities are not the cause of achievement gaps but later argues for more teachers and counselors in schools serving children in poverty.  And although he emphasizes the importance of extracurricular activities and the inequality created when students must pay to play, he does not seem to grasp that this trend is related to diminished public dollars invested in schools.  Despite this flaw, however, I urge you to read Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. The book is important because of the clarity by which Putnam traces the tangled and profound ways income inequality shapes academic achievement gaps.