Ohio’s Plunderbund Examines Correlation of School District Ratings with Family Income

For many years Ohio has used a Performance Index to judge its school districts.  The Performance Index is a formula based primarily on standardized test scores.  Not too long ago at a meeting, when someone pointed out that the Performance Index seems to reflect family wealth and may not, in fact, represent school quality, an expert responded that we pretty much have to use the Performance Index as an indicator of school quality in Ohio because it is really the only long standing, reliable indicator we have.  I wondered about this at the time.  A rating system that is wrong and that unfairly assigns blame, however handy, doesn’t seem to me to be a good tool to use.

(Of course there is also the question about why we are creating a competition in the first place—ranking and rating school districts when they serve different children and they are located in different kinds of communities.)

Finally this year people are paying more attention to how Ohio’s school district performance ratings are calculated, because Ohio is in the process of moving from a ranking of “Excellent, Effective, Continuous Improvement, Academic Watch and Academic Emergency” to a more damning system for many school districts—A, B, C, D, and F.  Many of the school districts caught in the “Continuous Improvement” range have been able to benefit from the quaisi-positive frame of that term.  Now some of those supposedly “C” school districts will fall to the D or F category.  And the stakes are high.  Last week this blog (here) quoted a statement from a 2005 National Council of Churches document that clarifies one of the serious consequences in actual practice of evaluating schools and school districts by students’ test scores, a practice codified in 2002 in the federal testing law No Child Left Behind: “The No Child Left Behind Act exacerbates racial and economic segregation in metropolitan areas by rating homogeneous, wealthier school districts as excellent, while labeling urban districts with far more subgroups and more complex demands made by the law as ‘in need of improvement.’ Such labeling of schools and districts encourages families with means to move to wealthy, homogeneous school districts.”

Over the weekend the Columbus, Ohio blog Plunderbund published an investigation of the meaning and impact of Ohio’s Performance IndexPlunderbund concludes: “If you live in the vast majority of Ohio’s communities (92.7%) where the median income is less than $45,000, your school district has less than 1% of a chance at receiving an A on John Kasich’s report card… Nine years’ worth of data appear to reveal that the best way to improve student test scores is to increase the community’s income.  So we must ask ourselves—What are Ohio’s standardized tests truly measuring and what do the school report cards really tell us?  Do they tell us about our schools or do they reveal something much, much bigger?… From where we sit, it looks like John Kasich’s actions, including his ‘new report card,’ simply continue to heap the blame on Ohio’s public schools while he ignores a much larger issue.”

That much larger issue, of course, is the concentrated poverty of families in Ohio’s big-city school districts, where in particular schools all children live in poverty, many at half the federal poverty line.  Also reflected in the school performance index is the growing inequality across the state—as many of the smaller towns and rural areas remain poor or mixed-income, while affluence is increasingly concentrated in a handful of outer suburbs in metropolitan counties. Just two weeks ago, the Plain Dealer‘s Rich Exner examined new, 2013 data released from the U.S. Census, data that ranks Cleveland second in the United States (among cities of at least 250,000 people) in the rate of family poverty; only Detroit is poorer.  Exner reports that Cleveland’s poverty rate for children is 54.4 percent. Again among large cities, only Detroit’s child poverty rate is higher, at 58.6 percent.  These are alarming numbers.

The best data source for examining school poverty is the number of children who qualify for free lunch and are enrolled in specific public schools.  The number of children in a school district who qualify for free lunch excludes families without children and children living in a school district who may attend private or parochial schools.  To qualify for free lunch, a child must live in a family living at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line; hence a family of four whose children qualify for free lunch has an income under $31,005 per year.    This blog recently compared Cuyahoga County school district Performance Index ratings to free lunch data by school district and concluded that the performance index reflects the rate of family poverty.

While broader income data includes all families and not merely those using public schools, yesterday Plunderbund reached the same conclusion by comparing the median adjusted gross income of all school district residents to the Ohio school district Performance Index:  “Instead of looking specifically at the level of student poverty, we decided to look at the overall income of the entire community using personal income tax data provided by the Ohio Department of Taxation.  What we’ve discovered echoes the findings by Dr. Fleeter (who has used school lunch data), but the magnitude of the problem, and how Governor Kasich’s new grade-based report card puts public schools in a more negative light, surprised even us…  We weren’t content to look at just one or two years’ worth of scores, so we downloaded nine years of PI (Performance Index) Scores for Ohio’s public school districts.”

Plunderbund‘s analysis focuses on the impact of concentrated wealth—school districts that are rated A on the Performance Index:  “Only 44 out of the 610 school districts have ever received an A rating… Eight of Ohio’s 610 school districts have always received an A rating for Performance Index in each of the nine years… Seven school districts received an A rating for the first time in 2013-2014.  The median income for those seven districts is $52,025…”

All this information about Ohio’s richest school districts and their A grades should also motivate readers to think about the F grades being awarded to the school districts called to serve the children living in poverty who reside in their communities.  Many of these children may arrive hungry, may live in families forced to move frequently, may have been exposed to violence in their neighborhoods, and may have missed out on pre-school and preventive medical and dental care.  The question for the public is how to support Ohio’s school districts with high rates of family poverty to enable the schools to address the challenges many poor children bring to school.