What does it mean when somebody gives you a bad grade for who you are? That is exactly what the new school district report cards in Ohio do. School achievement tends to correlate with aggregate family income, and metropolitan areas across the nation are quickly resegregating by income. Research shows there are fewer and fewer mixed income communities and more very poor and very rich ones. Ohio gives the schools in very rich communities “A” grades; and Ohio gives schools in very poor and in mixed income communities “Ds”and “Fs.”
In his fascinating book, Our Kids, that tracks the impact of growing income inequality on children, Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam poses this question: “Do schools in America today tend to widen the growing gaps between have and have-not kids, do they reduce those gaps, or do they have little effect either way?” (p. 160) Putnam answers his own question by reporting ground breaking research studies released five years ago by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon: “In a landmark study, the Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon demonstrated a widening class gap in both math and reading test scores among American kids in recent decades… He summarizes his key finding succinctly: ‘The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30-40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five year earlier.’ … Strikingly, Reardon’s analysis also suggests that schools themselves aren’t creating the opportunity gap: the gap is already large by the time children enter kindergarten and, he reports, does not grow appreciably as children progress through school.” (pp. 160-162)
The Ohio Department of Education released school district report cards and school district summative letter grades—“A-F”—last Thursday based on standardized test scores from 2015. The Plain Dealer reports that among the 20 “A” graded school districts, 8 are white, affluent suburbs of Cleveland; 4 are white, affluent suburbs of Cincinnati; 2 are white, affluent suburbs of Akron; one is a white, affluent suburb of Toledo; and one is a white, affluent suburb of Dayton. Another of these A-rated school districts is Granville, a small town that houses Denison University and that boasted a median family income of $102,885 according to the census in 2000. At that time, according to the census, there were in Granville no children under the age of 18 living below the federal poverty line.
It is not a positive thing that poverty, and institutional and structural racism, and growing residential segregation by income overlaid on segregation by race pose serious challenges for children. But poverty is not a disability. Examples abound of low-income children who excel at school. Aggregate test scores, however, show what sociological research has been documenting for a long time: In the aggregate, school districts that serve concentrations of children in poverty are likely to post lower overall test scores.
The logical question to ask is how better to help such school districts support their students and the teachers who serve them. Since 2001, however, the United States has instead adopted a policy that seeks to motivate staff in those districts to try harder by shaming and punishing them. Federal policy even provided recommended sanctions—close the school, reconstitute the school, restart the school by turning it into a charter school, rate and rank teachers by their students’ standardized test scores. In the same punitive style, Ohio and other states that have copied the Jeb Bush plan from Florida, now award letter grades on school district report cards based on aggregate test scores. There is wide agreement that these sanctions have not improved student achievement.
Last April, Stanford News summarized new, preliminary research by sociologist Sean Reardon—newer data than what caught Robert Putnam’s attention last year when he published Our Kids. In the new research, Reardon evaluated a massive new data set —of 200 million test scores—“reading and math test results of some 40 million 3rd to 8th grade students during 2009-13 in every public school district in the country…”
Here are some of the findings, which Reardon explains, document the widespread persistence of both economic and racial achievement gaps: “The socioeconomic profile of a district is a powerful predictor of the average test score performance of students in that district.” “The most and least socioeconomically advantaged districts have average performance levels more than four grade levels apart. Average test scores of black students are, on average, roughly two grade levels lower than those of white students in the same district; the Hispanic-white difference is roughly one-and-a-half grade levels. Achievement gaps are larger in districts where black and Hispanic students attend higher poverty schools than their white peers, where parents on average have high levels of educational attainment; and where large racial/ethnic gaps exist in parents’ educational attainment. The size of the gaps has little or no association with average class size, a district’s per capita student spending or charter school enrollment.”
Stanford News emphasizes that Reardon’s new research remains preliminary: “The researchers stress that their findings do not prove cause and effect, though they do point to promising areas for further study.”
Ohio’s policy of awarding school district grades based on students’ aggregate test scores amounts to educational redlining—castigating mixed-income and poorer communities and urging parents who can find the means to abandon districts with lower grades and find a way to move to “A” rated schools. Ohio’s school district grades clearly promote economic and racial segregation in the state’s metropolitan areas.
School districts are responsible for educating and improving the lives of the children who live in their communities. In Ohio, the state’s confusing rating system—this year based on a new and harder test which forced scores down across the state—does a poor job of evaluating what particular schools are doing to ensure their students learn. The grades elevate some school districts and castigate others without identifying or showcasing promising educational practices.
If one views Ohio’s “A-F” school grades through the lens of sociological research, it’s perfectly clear that the state is encouraging the public to believe that homogeneous, wealthy communities are the best place to live and raise children. There are lots of reasons to challenge such an assumption, but we rarely question it.