NAEP Scores Confirm that COVID Disrupted Schooling; They Do Not Reflect a Downward Trajectory in School Achievement

Are the new National Assessment of Educational Progress scores a catastrophic indication that the U.S. public schools have fallen into decline? I don’t think so.

Early this week, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a large data set from National Assessment of Educational Progress exams administered last spring to 4th and 8th grade students in U.S. public schools. Last month, NCES released scores from tests administered to a smaller group of 4th graders.  Both sets of scores show that the COVID pandemic seriously disrupted schooling for the nation’s children and adolescents.

Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum explains what the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is: “The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, pronounced nape) is a test administered by an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. It’s given periodically to a representative subset of American students in math and reading in grades four and eight. Scores are broken down by state and for a select handful of cities, too. The latest results are based on tests given between January and March 2022. The previous test was given in 2019, before the pandemic… Scores from a separate NAEP exam that has been given to 9-year-olds for many decades were previously released in September.”

The NAEP scores released this week were precipitously lower than scores on the NAEP when it was administered in 2019, before COVID—particularly in 8th grade math. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler reports: “The portion of eighth-graders rated proficient or better in math fell to 27 percent, from 34 percent in 2019… the steepest decline in more than a half century of testing.”  (The fact that every year relatively few students reach NAEP’s proficient level overall is because the NAEP “proficient” cut score is set artificially high; it marks what most people would define as “advanced.”)

Some people assume that this year’s drop in NAEP scores signals a reversal of progress, the beginning of a downward spiral.  Others are using the scores as evidence for their particular reform or as evidence that their state had a better policy on school closures than other states. Meckler writes: “Partisans on all sides of the education debate seized on the results to advance competing ideas about the way ahead… The test results also offered fodder for those who argue bringing students back to campuses quickly was the right move… ‘We kept schools open in 2020, and today’s NAEP results once again prove we made the right decision,’ Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said on Twitter.  But the data did not establish a connection between back-to-school policies and academic performance. In California, for instance, many public schools were closed well into the 2020-21 school year and some students never saw a classroom that year. But the declines were similar to those in Texas and Florida, where schools were ordered to reopen much sooner.”

In a blog post last month when the first set of 4th grade NAEP scores was released, I shared my own assessment of what had happened. I think the scores released last month and the scores released this week show the same thing. Here is some of what I said in that post.

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There is no cause for panic.  Schooling was utterly disrupted for the nation’s children and adolescents, just as all of our lives were interrupted in so many immeasurable ways. During COVID, while some of us have experienced the catastrophic death of loved ones, all of us have experienced less definable losses—things we cannot name.

I think this year’s NAEP scores—considerably lower than pre-pandemic scores—should be understood as a marker that helps us define the magnitude of the disruption for our children during this time of COVID. The losses are academic, emotional, and social, and they all make learning harder.

Schools shut down and began remote instruction in the spring of 2020, and many stayed online through the first half of last school year. While most public schools were up and running by last spring, there have been a lot of problems—with more absences, fighting and disruption, and overwhelming stress for educators. It is clear from the disparities in the scores released last week among high and low achievers that the disruption meant very different things to different children. It is also evident that the pandemic was a jolting shock to our society’s largest civic institution. It should be no surprise, then, that the attempt to get school back on track was so rocky all through last spring…

While the NAEP is traditionally used to gauge the trajectory of overall educational achievement over time, and while the trajectory has been moderately positive over the decades, the results released last week cannot by any means be interpreted to mean a change of the overall direction of educational achievement.

Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz asked Stanford University professor Sean Reardon (whose research tracks the connection of poverty and race to educational achievement) whether “it will take another 20 years to raise scores once again.”  Reardon responded: “That’s the wrong question…. The question is: What’s going to happen for these (9-year-old) kids over the next years of their lives.” Schwartz describes more of Reardon’s response: “Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds, will be back to normal relatively soon, Reardon said. Instead, he said, we should look to future scores for 13-year-olds, which will present a better sense of how much ground these current students have gained.”

Schwartz reports: “Students at all levels lost ground during the past two years, but lower-performing students saw the biggest drops.”  The test does not in any way measure the factors that contributed to the drop in scores for students who were already struggling, but the results shouldn’t be surprising.  Some children live in families with internet access and enough computers that each of several children in the family could access online instruction simultaneously, while other children’s parents had to drive them to public library or fast food outlet parking lots to find any internet access at all. Some parents had sufficient time at home to supervise children and provide assistance during online instruction, while in other families, older siblings supervised younger siblings while trying to participate themselves in online instruction. Some children and adolescents simply checked out and neglected to log-on.

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In a new statement this week after the second set of NAEP scores were released, FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, published a statement by Harry Feder: “Given that Monday’s state-by-state NAEP data mirror September’s national trends, as expected, we are getting an even greater cry of panic over “learning loss” and a call for dramatic interventions to catch students up. Such reactions are not justified. The September scores reflected the toll that the pandemic exacted. State-by-state numbers affirm what educators and parents already know – the pandemic was bad for kids.  But now that children are back in school, in-person learning has gone back to normal.  In all likelihood, scores for future 4th and 8th graders will revert to more normal patterns. We will need to see what happens to students as they age to see whether the pandemic score plunge dissipates over time.”

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2022 Scores on NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card, Help Define the Meaning of the Pandemic

When fourth grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released last week, the NY Times headline writer informed us: “the pandemic erased two decades of progress in math and reading,” as though a long trend of public school improvement has now been set on a downward trajectory.

What happened instead is that schooling was utterly disrupted for the nation’s children and adolescents, just as all of our lives were interrupted in so many immeasurable ways. During COVID, while some of us have experienced the catastrophic death of loved ones, all of us have experienced less definable losses—things we cannot name.

I think this year’s NAEP scores—considerably lower than pre-pandemic scores—should be understood as a marker that helps us define the magnitude of the disruption for our children during this time of COVID. The losses are academic, emotional, and social, and they all make learning harder.

Schools shut down and began remote instruction in the spring of 2020, and many stayed online through the first half of last school year. While most public schools were up and running by last spring, there have been a lot of problems—with more absences, fighting and disruption, and overwhelming stress for educators. It is clear from the disparities in the scores released last week among high and low achievers that the disruption meant very different things to different children. It is also evident that the pandemic was a jolting shock to our society’s largest civic institution. It should be no surprise, then, that the attempt to get school back on track was so rocky all through last spring.

What is the National Assessment of Educational Progress?  The Washington Post‘s Donna St. George explains: “NAEP testing is done at public and private schools across the country that are randomly sampled, according to the National Center for Education Statistics… Test takers are randomly sampled, too—14,800 students in all, from 410 schools. More than 90 percent of schools were sampled in both 2020 and 2022.”

The NY TimesSarah Mervosh adds: “The National Assessment of Educational Progress is considered a gold standard in testing.  Unlike state tests, it is standardized across the country, has remained consistent over time and makes no attempt to hold individual schools accountable for results, which experts believe makes it more reliable. The test results (released last week) offered a snapshot for just one age group: 9-year-olds, who are typically in third or fourth grade.  More results, for fourth graders and for eighth graders, will be released later this fall on a state-by-state level.”

What do this year’s scores show us about the impact of the pandemic on public schooling in America?

While the NAEP is traditionally used to gauge the trajectory of overall educational achievement over time, and while the trajectory has been moderately positive over the decades, the results released last week cannot by any means be interpreted to mean a change of the overall direction of educational achievement.

Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz asked Stanford University professor Sean Reardon (whose research tracks the connection of poverty and race to educational achievement) whether “it will take another 20 years to raise scores once again.”  Reardon responded: “That’s the wrong question…. The question is: What’s going to happen for these (9-year-old) kids over the next years of their lives.” Schwartz describes more of Reardon’s response: “Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds, will be back to normal relatively soon, Reardon said. Instead, he said, we should look to future scores for 13-year-olds, which will present a better sense of how much ground these current students have gained.”

Schwartz reports: “Students at all levels lost ground during the past two years, but lower-performing students saw the biggest drops.”  The test does not in any way measure the factors that contributed to the drop in scores for students who were already struggling, but the results shouldn’t be surprising.  Some children live in families with internet access and enough computers that each of several children in the family could access online instruction simultaneously, while other children’s parents had to drive them to public library or fast food outlet parking lots to find any internet access at all. Some parents had sufficient time at home to supervise children and provide assistance during online instruction, while in other families, older siblings supervised younger siblings while trying to participate themselves in online instruction. Some children and adolescents simply checked out and neglected to log-on.

Diane Ravitch highlights another lesson we can very likely learn: remote instruction is an inadequate substitute for going to school.  Decades of research show that education is relational:

“The moral of the story is that students need to have human contact with a teacher and classmates to learn best. Virtual learning is a fourth-rate substitute for a real teacher and interaction with peers… The pandemic isolated children from their teachers. It caused them to be stuck in front of a computer… They needed human interaction. They needed to look into the eyes of a teacher who encouraged them to do better, a teacher who explained what they didn’t understand. The NAEP scores are a wake-up call. We must treasure our teachers and recognize the vital role they play in educating the next generation.”

President Elect Joe Biden’s Education Plan Is Designed to Expand the Opportunity to Learn

The education plan President Elect Joe Biden announced during his campaign for President reflects a public school, “opportunity to learn” agenda—a radical renunciation of the private school, radically individualistic policies of our current President, Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. The plan Biden has promoted also differs significantly from the technocratic neoliberalism embodied in education policy during the Obama administration, when Biden served as Vice President.

Through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, public education policy rested on threatening public schools with sanctions if they were unable promptly to raise aggregate standardized test scores and close what were called achievement gaps. The No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top strategy punitively demanded ever-rising outcomes.  President Elect Biden instead emphasizes investing in inputs to expand public schools’ capacity to close opportunity gaps. Biden’s plan reflects his understanding that government is responsible for investing in programs and services necessary to ensure that all students can thrive.

Biden’s pledge to expand the opportunity to learn reflects an understanding of school achievement documented last year by Sean Reardon, a Stanford University education sociologist in Is Separate Still Unequal? New Evidence on School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps. Here Reardon addresses specifically what has been called the black-white achievement gap: “We examine racial test score gaps because they reflect racial differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… (D)ifferences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

For fifteen years before Trump and DeVos launched a quest for radically expanding publicly funded vouchers to enable families to pay tuition at private and religious schools, Democrats joined Republicans in endorsing the rapid expansion of charter schools, which many Democrats justified by claiming that charters, are not really private. I once heard a prominent Washington, D.C. liberal Democrat say, “We can’t support vouchers because they are a form of privatization, but charter schools are OK because, you know, they aren’t really private.” Charter schools are, of course, privately operated—a form of government contracting with private operators at taxpayer expense. The Clinton and Obama administrations invested in the growth of charter schools. Biden has distanced himself from the pursuit of more charter schools. He has, at least, condemned the charter management companies that are making a profit from our tax dollars and has pledged improve oversight of a charter sector filled with fraud and corruption.  We can’t yet be sure about how he will deal with the threat of charter school privatization. It is notable, however, that his education plan emphasizes reforms to support the nation’s public schools, while there is no endorsement of standardized testing, school accountability, charter schools, vouchers, or marketplace school choice.

Biden’s education plan does, however, reflect what we all learned from events in 2018 and 2019 that challenged the nation’s understanding of what has gone missing in public schools. Over the decade from 2008—at the same time federal policy was demanding that somehow schools immediately raise aggregate standardized test scores—the Great Recession collapsed state budgets and thereby devastated state funding that makes up roughly 40 percent of public investment in K-12 education. Then across many states, Tea Party state legislators elected in 2010 further cut the taxes needed to fund the public schools and other state functions.

In massive walkouts and strikes through 2018 and 2019—from West Virginia to Kentucky to Colorado to Oklahoma to Arizona to Los Angeles to Oakland and Chicago—teachers cried out for essentials their public schools could no longer afford. We watched teachers demand that their legislatures provide enough money to reduce class sizes of 40 students. Teachers protested an epidemic shortage of counselors, social workers, school psychologists, school nurses and certified librarians. Red4Ed strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland demonstrated how public schools had been devastated by the diversion of local school budgets to charter schools. Economist Gordon Lafer showed, for example, that the Oakland Unified School District loses $57.3 million every year as essential public school funds are diverted to charter schools. Although the press has covered pleas for the public to contribute to go-fund-me campaigns to help teachers buy classroom supplies, teachers taught us in two years of strikes what a shortage of educational investment really means: widespread disinvestment in staff. Not only were key staff being laid off, but teachers’ salaries in too many school districts were declining below the level of decency.  In some places we heard from teachers who were unable afford the rent on a one bedroom apartment in the communities where they were teaching. Teachers in Oklahoma were quitting and moving to Texas where salaries were higher.  Colleges and universities reported fewer and fewer students willing to pursue teaching as a career.

Biden’s education plan declares that he listened to striking teachers: “We have witnessed educators around the country—in states from West Virginia to Arizona to Kentucky—heroically organize walkouts and other actions to stand up not just for their own wages and benefits, but also for the resources they need to serve their students.  Educators shouldn’t have to fight so hard for resources and respect.”  During the campaign, Biden pledged to:

  • Triple funding for Title I, the federal program funding schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families;
  • Increase funding for mandated programs under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to the full 40 percent of the cost—what Congress originally promised when the law was passed. Today Congress funds roughly 14 percent of the cost and leaves the rest to be absorbed by local school district budgets.
  • Use federal policy to promote equity by incentivizing states to increase investment in the local school districts with the least capacity to raise local revenue. “States without a sufficient and equitable finance system will be required to match a share of federal funds.”
  • Provide high-quality universal pre-Kindergarten for all three-and four-year-olds.
  • Ensure teachers receive competitive salaries and benefits: “Public school teachers’ average weekly wage hasn’t increased since 1996.”
  • “Double the number of psychologists, counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in our schools so our kids get the mental health care they need.”
  • Provide wraparound, full service Community Schools to serve 300,000 additional students and their families.

During the campaign, President Elect Biden proposed public school policy designed to expand the opportunity to learn: “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Educators and advocates will need to hold Joe Biden accountable for these promises even as we work to support his efforts to make them a reality.  A significant challenge for Biden will be passing the tax increase he has pledged to enact for corporations and the wealthiest Americans—a tax increase which would pay for his education plan and other important programs. Mitch McConnell will continue to lead a Republican majority Senate, whose members will likely not be amenable to raising these taxes.

Trump Brags About Racist Housing and Education Policies and Urges Americans to “Enjoy!”

In desperation, as polls predict he is likely to lose in the November election, President Donald Trump has not only threatened to defund the post office for the purpose of ensuring that a lot of votes won’t be counted, but he has also, shockingly, been appealing to racism.  He tweeted:

“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood… Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down.  I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!”

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson explains the meaning of Trump’s tweet and refreshes our memories about the AFFH Rule: “Trump tweeted what may be the most nakedly racist appeal to White voters that I’ve seen since the days of segregationist state leaders such as Alabama’s George Wallace and Georgia’s Lester Maddox… Many people probably don’t know what the ‘Obama-Biden AFFH Rule’ is, but its roots are in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, specifically its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing provision. That section of the law required federal agencies that deal with housing and banking to pursue their missions in a way that would actively desegregate housing.  In 2015, the Obama administration spelled out how communities should measure their progress, or lack thereof, in eliminating housing bias, and tied federal funding for housing and urban development to those measurements. Trump’s tweet is a promise not to actively enforce that provision. And it’s a message to White people that they can go ahead and do whatever they feel is necessary to keep Black people and Latinos from moving into their neighborhoods.”

Of course, Trump does not explicitly name race in his abhorrent tweet and he doesn’t mention segregation in the public schools.  In this one tweet, however, the President is explicitly endorsing injustices many of us have worked to try to overcome throughout our adult lives—housing segregated by race and economics—public schools segregated by race and economics—economic inequality which has worsened alarmingly in recent decades.

In 1962, Michael Harrington tried to remove our blinders when he wrote: “There is a familiar America. It is celebrated in speeches and advertised on television and in the magazines. It has the highest mass standard of living the world has ever known. In the 1950s this America worried about itself, yet even its anxieties were the products of abundance… While this discussion was carried on, there existed another America… To be sure, the other America is not impoverished in the same sense as those poor nations where millions cling to hunger as a defense against starvation. This country has escaped such extremes. That does not change the fact that tens of millions of Americans are, at this very moment, maimed in body and spirit, existing at levels beneath those necessary for human decency. If these people are not starving, they are hungry…. They are without adequate housing and education and medical care.” (The Other America, pp. 1-2)

In the midst of a long, hot, summer of violence in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a national commission to examine the causes of civic unrest erupting across America cities.  The Kerner Commission, which released its report on March 1, 1968, challenged the very power and white privilege that President Trump is celebrating in his recent racist tweet: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal… What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it. It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation… It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens—urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group.”

In a 2005 preface to the Princeton Classic Edition of his Bancroft Award wining history, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Thomas Sugrue documents America’s failure, decades after the Kerner report and decades after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, to have made much progress on eradicating housing segregation (and by extension, school segregation): “It is dangerous to let our optimism about urban revitalization obscure the grim realities that still face most urban residents, particularly people of color. Acres of rundown houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, and shuttered stores stand untended in the shadow of revitalized downtowns and hip urban enclaves. There has been very little ‘trickle down’ from downtown revitalization and neighborhood gentrification to the long-term poor, the urban working class, and minorities. An influx of coffee shops, bistros, art galleries, and upscale boutiques have made parts of many cities increasingly appealing for the privileged, but they have not, in any significant way, altered the everyday misery and impoverishment that characterize many urban neighborhoods… And despite some conspicuous successes—often against formidable odds—community development corporations have made only a small dent in the urban economies and housing markets… As with all urban transformations, the question is:  Who benefited and who lost?… For now… racial and class inequalities have persisted—even hardened—in most Rustbelt metropolitan areas.  Most people of color have remained on the margins of downtown booms, still segregated by race, still facing the consequences of disinvestment and job flight, still suffering from decades of cuts in urban funding and public services… From the mid-twentieth century to the present, American society has been characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor, between communities of privilege and those of poverty.  Despite a rhetoric about race relations that is more civil than it was in 1950, racial divisions by income, wealth, education, employment, health, and political power remain deeply entrenched… What is clear is that urban America continues to be shaped by processes that have their origins deep in the mid-twentieth century.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Princeton Classic Edition, pp. xxv-xxvii)

In his 2017, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein draws the connection between segregated housing and segregated schooling.  Further, he explores the structural difficulties which have prevented undoing both housing and school segregation, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley banned busing children across jurisdictional lines from city to suburb to promote desegregation.

Rothstein explains: “As it has turned out, schools are more segregated today than they were forty years ago, but this is mostly because the neighborhoods in which schools are located are so segregated. In 1970, the typical African American student attended a school in which 32 percent of the students were white. By 2010, this exposure had fallen to 29 percent. It is because of neighborhood segregation that African American students are more segregated in schools in states like New York and Illinois than they are anywhere else.” (The Color of Law, p. 179)

Rothstein continues: “Yet… we shouldn’t have expected much to happen from a Fair Housing Act that allowed African Americans… to resettle in a white suburb.  Moving from an urban apartment to a suburban home is incomparably more difficult than registering to vote, applying for a job, changing seats on a bus, sitting down in a restaurant, or even attending a neighborhood school.  Residential segregation is hard to undo for several reasons: (1) Parents’ economic status is commonly replicated in the next generation, so… depressed incomes became, for many, a multigenerational trait. (2) The value of white working- and middle-class families’ suburban housing appreciated substantially over the years, resulting in vast wealth differences between whites and blacks that helped to define permanently our racial living arrangements… (3) We waited too long to try to undo it… (H)omes outside urban black neighborhoods had mostly become unaffordable for working-and lower-middle-class families. (4) Once segregation was established, seemingly race-neutral policies reinforced it to make remedies even more difficult.  Perhaps most pernicious has been the federal tax code’s mortgage interest deduction…. Because de jure policies of segregation ensured that whites would more likely be owners and African Americans more likely the renters, the tax code contributes to making African Americans and whites less equal. (5) Contemporary federal, state, and local programs have reinforced residential segregation rather than diminished it. Federal subsidies for low-income families’ housing have been used mainly to support those families’ ability to rent apartments in minority areas where economic opportunity is scarce, not in integrated areas. Likewise developers of low-income housing have used federal tax credits mostly to construct apartments in already-segregated neighborhoods.” (The Color of Law, pp. 179-180)

Rothstein examines housing policies, many of them enforced by federal, state and local laws, which for decades have diminished opportunity for African American families hoping to buy homes in what are now in many cases segregated white suburbs. These include FHA loan policies that excluded black Americans, discrimination in Veterans Administration loans after WWII, exclusionary local zoning with lot size requirements and prohibitions for multi-family housing; protective covenants, mortgage and insurance redlining, and other policies.  Rothstein reminds readers: “The FHA was particularly concerned with preventing school desegregation. Its manual warned that if children ‘are compelled to attend school where the majority or a considerable number of the pupils represent a far lower level of society or an incompatible racial element, the neighborhood under consideration will prove far less stable and desirable than if this condition did not exist’ and mortgage lending in such neighborhoods would be risky.” (The Color of Law, pp. 65-66)

Racism has found other routes into federal and state education policy today. The  No Child Left Behind Act demanded that states evaluate their public schools by aggregate standardized test scores for so-called “accountability” purposes.  States then used these evaluations to create school district  report cards and awarded letter grades to the highest scoring schools and school districts. It is well known that aggregate standardized test scores measure primarily out-of-school factors—the economic level of families and neighborhoods—rather than the quality of the teachers, the curriculum, and a child’s experience at school.  But no matter:  Online real estate companies like Great Schools and Zillow now publish the school “grades” and in doing so, promote wealthy and privileged school districts and redline public schools serving concentrations of children in poverty.

Today rapidly accelerating economic segregation across America’s metropolitan areas is overlaid upon racial segregation. The results were measured by Stanford University’s educational sociologist Sean Reardon in ground-breaking research. In 2011, Reardon, used a massive data set to document  the consequences of widening inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

Housing segregation and school segregation by both race and family economics are among our society’s most serious injustices. That the President of the United States would appeal to blatant racism as a cheap political ploy in this election year and that he would deny the tragic history of racist policies, which have at the same time explosively driven economic inequality, is alarming and despicable.

Educational Redlining: GreatSchools Ratings Drive Housing Segregation

Back in 2015, Heights Community Congress (HCC) in Cleveland Heights, Ohio raised serious concerns (here and here) about the impact of online GreatSchools ratings of public schools. The GreatSchools ratings were, in 2015, being used in online real estate advertising by listing services like Zillow.  The practice continues.

HCC, founded in 1972, is Greater Cleveland, Ohio’s oldest fair housing enforcement organization. For over four decades HCC has been conducting audits of the real estate industry to expose and discourage racial steering and disparate treatment of African American and white home seekers. During 2015 and 2016, the fair housing committee of HCC held community meetings to demonstrate that such ads and ratings of public schools are steering home buyers to whiter and wealthier communities and redlining racially and economically diverse and majority black and Hispanic communities.

Last month, Chalkbeat published an in-depth examination of similar concerns on a national scale: “Arguably the most visible and influential school rating system in America comes from the nonprofit GreatSchools, whose 1-10 ratings appear in home listings on national real estate websites Zillow, Realtor.com, and Redfin.  Forty-three million people visited GreatSchools’ site in 2018…. Zillow and its affiliated sites count more than 150 million unique visitors per month.”

Chalkbeat reports that GreatSchools has calculated its ratings for schools using the annual standardized test scores mandated by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a requirement maintained in the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced NCLB in 2015.  Because the ratings were criticized for relying too much on one standardized test score, in 2017, GreatSchools revised its algorithm for rating schools by including a factor to reflect the rate of growth in each school’s student test scores over time.

But Chalkbeat reports that the overall bias still condemns schools in the poorest communities: “When the organization overhauled its ratings in 2017, it included a host of new metrics. A GreatSchools representative said at the time that the new ratings would ‘more accurately reflect what’s going on in a school besides just its demographics.’  It was a striking acknowledgement of the flaws in the prior system… Two years into this new system, Chalkbeat took a closer look.  We examined the ratings of elementary and middle schools in Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, New York City, Phoenix, and San Francisco, combined with several of each city’s suburbs.  The results are striking. On average, the more black and Hispanic students a school enrolled, and the more low-income students it served, the lower its rating. The average 1-10 GreatSchools rating for schools with the most low-income and most black and Hispanic students is 4 to 6 points lower than the average score for schools with the fewest black and Hispanic students and fewest low-income students. In most places, only a tiny fraction of schools with the most low-income and most black and Hispanic students score a 7 or better, the number that earns an ‘above average’ label from GreatSchools.”

In December, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) reported on a Newsday report from Long Island: “The newspaper found that realtors repeatedly steered White buyers away from school districts enrolling higher percentages of minority residents, typically using veiled language. For example, they told white buyers that one community was an area to avoid ‘school district-wise’ or ‘based on statistics.'” And the housing values increased more rapidly in school districts with high GreatSchools ratings.

NEPC explains that Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University followed up on the NewsDay report.  Wells and her colleagues discovered that a one percent increase in Black/Hispanic enrollment corresponded with a 0.3 percent decrease in home values. In other words, a home worth $415,000 at the time of the study in 2010 would cost $50,000 more in a 30 percent Hispanic/Black district as compared to a 70 percent Hispanic/Black district.”  Wells and her colleagues examined and compared the schools themselves: “There didn’t seem to be a huge difference at all in the curriculum and the quality of the teachers… So they (real estate agents) do play an important role in steering people away from certain districts that are becoming more racially, ethnically diverse and less White, in particular.”

For over half a century, research has confirmed that standardized test scores are a poor measure of the quality of a public school. Instead aggregate standardized test scores are highly correlated with family and neighborhood income. Children educated in pockets of privilege regularly post high scores, while children in schools where poverty is concentrated post the lowest scores. Here are three examples of this research, two by academic experts and the third a recent correlation study by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

For a decade now, Stanford University’s Sean Reardon has been studying the correlation of achievement gaps measured by standardized tests with economic and racial segregation. He has documented that standardized tests measure all of the inside- and outside-of-school factors in a child’s life. Children who live in pockets of wealth bring their privilege with them when they take standardized tests.  In a massive new study published last fall, Is Separate Still Unequal, Reardon explains: “The association of racial segregation with achievement gaps is completely accounted for by racial differences in school poverty.” “We examine racial test score gaps because they reflect racial differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… Differences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

Harvard University’s testing expert, Daniel Koretz, emphasizes that while children living in concentrated poverty take longer to catch up to their more privileged peers, our testing regime fails to consider the needs of children who start school farther behind: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

And finally, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s data wonk, Rich Exner created a series of bar graphs when the Ohio state school district report cards were released last September. Exner demonstrates the correlation of the letter grades awarded to school districts by the state’s school rating system (letter grades based primarily on aggregate student’ standardized test scores) with the family income of the children in each school district.  School districts earning “A” ratings boasted median family income of $95,432, while the school districts rated “F” serve families whose median family income is $32,658.  The state of Ohio itself in its annual school report cards seems to be joining GreatSchools and Zillow to steer families to the affluent, white, exurbs surrounding our cities. These are the districts which regularly earn “A” grades on the state report card and the highest ratings from GreatSchools and Zillow.

It is alarming to see our society stepping back so completely from concerns about steering, disparate treatment, and redlining in the real estate market. These are the very issues the 1968 Fair Housing Act was intended to address.  The National Education Policy Center declares: “Realtors and real estate websites alike share assessments that downgrade schools that serve higher percentages of low-income and minority students, while also serving to maintain segregated housing patterns by steering Whites away from districts that serve students of color.”

What Does the Slippage in NAEP Reading Scores Mean about our Schools? our Children? our Society?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is considered the most reliable indicator of trends in American public education. The test is administered to samples of students and is used to track long-range trends.  Nobody reports on the NAEP scores of specific students. Nobody judges schools by comparative scores on NAEP. Nobody evaluates teachers based on their students’ NAEP scores. NAEP has never been part of the accountability scheme imposed by No Child Left Behind.

Diane Ravitch explains what the NAEP is:  “We have only one authoritative measure of academic performance over time, and that is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP (pronounced ‘nape’).  NAEP is part of the U.S. Department of Education.  It has an independent governing board, called the National Assessment Governing Board.  By statute, the governing board is bipartisan and consists of teachers, administrators, state legislators, governors, business people, and members of the general public.”  (Reign of Error, p. 44)

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard expert on the construction and use of standardized tests and the way testing is distorted when the scores are used for high stakes school accountability (to compare and judge schools and teachers), explains why the NAEP scores are respected as an accurate measure of the overall trends in U.S. public schools: “NAEP… is  considered a very high-quality test. NAEP scores are not susceptible to inflation because teachers aren’t held accountable for scores and therefore have no incentive to engage in NAEP-focused test prep.  And NAEP scores are there for the taking.  In math and reading, NAEP is administered every two years, and the scores are available to anyone on the web.” (The Testing Charade, p. 57)

The most recent NAEP scores were released in late October, for the first time since 2017. For the NY Times, Erica Green and Dana Goldstein describe the results: “America’s fourth and eighth graders are losing ground in their ability to read literature and academic texts…. The average eighth-grade reading score declined in more than half of the states compared with 2017, the last time the test was given. The average scores in fourth-grade reading declined in 17 states.  Math scores remained relatively flat in most states.”

Of course, the papers have been filled with a lot of hand wringing—blaming the teachers—despairing the decline in our young peoples’ attainment.  Bill Mathis believes all this misses the point.  Mathis served as a design consultant for the National Assessment of Education Progress. He is currently a member of the Vermont State Board of Education and the managing director of the National Education Policy Center.  Mathis recently shared his analysis in a pithy column which first appeared in the Vermont Digger.  He has given me permission to reprint it here:

William J. Mathis: Beat the dead horse harder

The latest round of flagellation of dead horse flesh has been provoked by the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.  After 20 years of overall progress, many of the scores went down.  While all groups improved over the long haul, the gaps between white and other racial groups varied over time but generally remained in place.[i]  Education critics lament and proclaim, “It’s time to get tough! Let’s do some more of what didn’t work!” Meanwhile officials whisper measured words through steepled fingers saying they are “concerned,” that we must do more to ensure our students are well prepared to compete with China and “we have more work to do.” Still others claim that this exercise in numerology is helpful.

Put plainly, standardized tests have no meaningful relationship with economic development and they are poor definers of learning needs. Nevertheless, the NAEP is a valuable outside way of examining trends.

The scores dropped across the nation — which tells us one important thing. The causes are not found in local or state initiatives. Something bigger is at play. Since the scores themselves do not tell us why they are low, we have to look at broad contemporary events and circumstances. This means looking at the research and related social and historical events.

Such is the case with NAEP. The strongest predictor of standardized test scores is poverty.[ii]  In this latest release, the biggest drops were among disadvantaged students. Sean Reardon at Stanford has compiled a data base of all school districts in the nation and found that test scores are most affected by this single construct.[iii]

He goes on to note that schools are highly segregated by class and by race. In fact, society is showing signs of resegregating.[iv]  Resolving these gaps is our first threshold issue. High needs children are concentrated in high poverty schools which are, on average, less effective than schools with lower poverty.  In a vicious cycle, poor schools are provided lesser resources. Compounding the problem, the Census Bureau tells us the wealth gap has sharply increased across the nation. Many schools across the nation have not recovered from the 2008 fiscal crisis and the federal government has never provided the promised support for needy children.

Regardless, the schools were mandated to solve the test score problem.  The trouble was that the policymakers got it backwards. Poverty prevents learning.  It is the threshold issue.  Without resorting to what we knew, the dead horse was beaten once more with the No Child Left Behind Act.  We adopted the Common Core curriculum, punished schools, and fired principals and teachers whose misfortune was being assigned to a school with a high concentration of needy children.  It was literally expected that a child from a broken home, hungry and with ADHD would be ready to sit down and learn quadratic equations.  Nevertheless, the test-based school accountability approach emerged and still remains the dominant school philosophy.  While it is claimed that successful applications exist, the research has not been found that says poverty can be overcome by beating the dead horse.  The irony is that the tests themselves show that a test based system is not a successful reform strategy.

Regardless of the dismal results, there is some reason to be optimistic. Policy researchers from across the spectrum agree that test based accountability has not been successful. On one end are Diane Ravitch and David Berliner who point to the lack of support provided to schools. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michael Petrilli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute agrees. They further agree that we must attend to social and emotional learning.

We live in troubled times. We face pathological shooters, communal activities are waning, our political establishment is wobbly, and basic economic well-being is threatened. We must certainly prepare the younger generations to be ready for the workforce, and that means keeping a sufficient number of independent measures of academic achievement, geared to the needed skills of society.  Yet, while we teach fundamentals, our most important obligation is to prepare all of our children to enhance the values of our heritage, guided by equality and democracy, as our paramount and universal values.

Thankfully. The public gets it. But it will not be solved by beating a dead horse.

Tim Slekar on the Exodus of Schoolteachers from Their Chosen Profession

Tim Slekar is the Dean of the College of Education at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin.  Early in September, Slekar was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio, an interview recommended to me by a public school teacher who said it is the best statement she has heard of the truth about public education today.

You can listen to Slekar explain what is described in many places as a growing shortage of public school teachers.  Slekar believes we are not merely experiencing a shortage of teachers;  what is happening instead is an exodus of public school teachers from their chosen profession. If it were a classic labor shortage, explains Slekar, pay would be raised, conditions would be made better, and enrollment in teacher training programs would grow.  All of this would attract more people to teaching, according to how a labor market is supposed to work.  But, argues Slekar, fewer and fewer people now want to be schoolteachers.  He explains that in his office, he has listened as parents of his college students beg their children to choose another profession instead.

Slekar believes that teachers are being driven out of the profession by the impossibility of working under the conditions imposed by test based school accountability, a strategy designed to be punitive. The goal was to make teachers work harder and smarter for fear their schools would receive a low rating. Test based accountability was a bipartisan strategy designed in the 1990s and cast into law in 2002 in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required schools to test students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Schools were then judged by their aggregate test scores, and the lowest scoring schools were punished.

Slekar also has a blog, Busted Pencils, where he has covered this subject extensively.  In a post last April, Slekar declares: “Accountability—loved by Democrats and Republicans—has almost become a religious movement. In fact the idea of even questioning the usefulness of test based accountability can cause enraged panic in accountability zealots. ‘How will we know what children are falling behind?’ ‘How will we close the achievement gap if we don’t measure it?’ ‘How will we fire bad teachers without the data?’ ‘How will we know what schools to close?’… Time for the hard truth.  Test based accountability has done one thing well. Over the past 35 years, we have beyond any doubt, measured and confirmed the achievement gap. That’s it. Nothing else.”

He continues: “However, test based accountability has destroyed the profession of teaching and caused a mass demoralization and ‘X’odus from public school classrooms. Oh, and let’s not forget about the thousands of hours of lost instruction time in the sciences, social studies, arts, music, and anything else that doesn’t conform to basic literacy and numeracy skills.”

There is a book which clearly examines all the problems with test based school accountability, a book written by Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on the construction and use of standardized tests.  The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better was published in 2017 by the University of Chicago Press, which is currently offering it on sale at the considerably reduced price of $11.00.

Daniel Koretz demonstrates how standardized testing in schools is corrupted—and how education itself is corrupted—when standardized tests become the basis of high-stakes accountability. The problem epitomizes the operation of Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the education process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

Koretz demonstrates the many ways that testing undermines education—how scores can be inflated by various kinds of direct test preparation: cutting back on the important subject matter that isn’t tested; spending time within a particular subject on the material known to be emphasized by a particular test; and even in some cases cheating: “The entire logic of our reforms depends on rewarding the schools that do better and punishing those that don’t. However, because in most contexts we can’t separate score inflation from legitimate improvements, we are sometimes rewarding people who game the system more effectively, and we are punishing educators who do good work but appear to be doing relatively less well because they aren’t taking as many shortcuts. On top of that, we are holding out as examples to be emulated programs that look good only because of bogus score gains and overlooking programs that really are good because the teachers using them are doing less to game the system. In other words, the system can propagate bad practice.” (The Testing Charade, p. 64) (emphasis in the original)

Finally there is the problem—confirmed in a recent study by Stanford University’s Sean Reardon—that standardized test scores reflect primarily a school’s or a school district’s aggregate family income.  The tests do not accurately measure the quality of the school. In a series of very simple bar graphs, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s data wonk, Rich Exner also demonstrates the striking correlation of Ohio’s school district grades on the state’s school report card with family income and parents’ level of education.

Daniel Koretz explains the correlation: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

In the recent Wisconsin Public Radio interview, Tim Slekar emphasizes that in the United States, over a trillion dollars has been spent on standardized tests and the data systems that process the results.  As a professional educator, he recommends the money be spent instead to surround children with the best children’s literature because reading is at the heart of education. He would also spend part of the money on wraparound programs to ensure that the poorest children are well fed, they are healthy, and they have care and enrichment in after school programs.

In a recent legislative hearing of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, one state senator twice posed the following question: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?” This legislator’s attack on teachers epitomizes Tim Slekar’s diagnosis of the cause of an exodus of schoolteachers from their profession.

We now know that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—and all the state-by-state test based accountability these federal policies spun off—did not improve the education of our nation’s poorest children, who are still being left behind.

I wonder how long it will be before we stop allowing our elected leaders to get away with shifting the blame onto teachers while they—the policymakers—fail to invest the resources and power of government in equitable school funding and in programs to support the needs of our society’s poorest children.

From Stanford’s Sean Reardon: Schools Alone Cannot Overcome Racial Achievement Gaps Caused By Concentrated Poverty

Here is the succinct conclusion of a complex, technical, and nuanced report released on Monday by Stanford University’s Sean Reardon and a team of researchers, Is Separate Still Unequal? New Evidence on School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps: “We use 8 years of data from all public school districts in the U.S.  We find that racial school segregation is strongly associated with the magnitude of achievement gaps in 3rd grade, and with the rate at which gaps grow from third to eighth grade. The association of racial segregation with achievement gaps is completely accounted for by racial differences in school poverty: racial segregation appears to be harmful because it concentrates minority students in high-poverty schools, which are, on average, less effective than lower poverty schools… We find that the effects of school poverty do not appear to be explained by differences in the set of measurable teacher or school characteristics available to us.”

In the report, Reardon defines academic test score gaps: “We examine racial test score gaps because they reflect racial differences in access to educational opportunities. By ‘educational opportunities,’ we mean all experiences in a child’s life, from birth onward, that provide opportunities for her to learn, including experiences in children’s homes, child care settings, neighborhoods, peer groups, and their schools. This implies that test score gaps may result from unequal opportunities either in or out of school; they are not necessarily the result of differences in school quality, resources, or experience. Moreover, in saying that test score gaps reflect differences in opportunities, we also mean that they are not the result of innate group differences in cognitive skills or other genetic endowments… (D)ifferences in average scores should be understood as reflecting opportunity gaps….”

The new report is part of a huge mapping study across the United States of unequal educational opportunity: “There are 403 metropolitan areas, 3,142 counties (and county-equivalents) and roughly 13,200 school districts serving grades 3-8 in the United states. Our analytic sample for the white-black achievement gap models contains 5,755 school districts, 2,067 counties, and 389 metropolitan areas. For the white-Hispanic achievement gap models, the samples include 7,800 school districts, 2,544 counties, and 390 metropolitan areas. Although the analytic sample includes estimated achievement gaps from only about half of all public school districts in the U.S., the excluded districts enroll relatively few minority students. Almost all black (96%) and Hispanic (96%) public school students in grades 308 in the U.S. are enrolled in districts included in the analytic sample.”

The report identifies concentrated poverty in racially isolated schools as the cause of academic achievement gaps in standardized test scores: “Once we account for racial differences in school poverty…, however, racial composition differences among schools are no longer positively and significantly associated with the grade 3 achievement gap … or gap growth…. Differences in exposure to school poverty, however, are strongly associated with gaps in grade 3 and modestly associated with gap growth….”  “Racial segregation matters, therefore, because it concentrates black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools, not because of the racial composition of their schools, per se.”

Exactly how concentrated poverty results in academic achievement gaps isn’t so clear.

“Our analyses are less conclusive, however, on the question of why the concentration of minority students in high-poverty schools leads to larger achievement gaps. One possibility is that high poverty schools attended by minority students tend to have fewer resources, less experienced and skilled teachers and less challenging curricula than low-poverty schools.  We find this to be the case: in more segregated school districts, counties, and metropolitan areas, white students are more likely to be concentrated in schools with more experienced teachers and more gifted and talented programs, for example.  We do not find that these differences are associated with achievement gaps or the growth in achievement gaps, however….”

“Another possibility is that racial segregation results in the concentration of minority students in schools where their schoolmates have low prior test scores relative to the schools where more white students are enrolled.. This might lead to differences in curricula or instructional rigor, differences in teachers’ or students’ expectations of their performance, or differences in norms around academic achievement.  We find no evidence that this is the case. Although segregation is almost always accompanied by large differences in the academic performance of minority and white students’ schoolmates, these differences are not associated with achievement gaps.  In fact, we find that achievement gaps tend to narrow slightly from grade 3 to 8, on average, in school systems where minority students’ schoolmates have lower prior scores than white students’ schoolmates.  So called ‘peer effects’ do not appear to explain the link between segregation and widening achievement gaps.”

“In sum, our analyses provide evidence that racial school segregation is closely linked to racial inequality in academic performance.  This implies that segregation creates unequal educational opportunities.  Although our analyses do not identify the specific mechanisms through which segregation leads to inequality, they make it clear that the mechanism is linked to differences in schools’ poverty rates, not differences in schools’ racial composition.”

In their review of the academic literature, Reardon and his colleagues emphasize the importance of studies which have demonstrated the importance of public policy that would invest more in schools serving poor children and in making state funding formulas more equitable.  But they conclude finally: “(W)e have no example of a school district where minority students disproportionately attend high poverty schools that does not have a large racial achievement gap. If it were possible to create equal educational opportunity under conditions of segregation and economic inequality, some community—among the thousands of districts in the country—would have done so… If we are serious about reducing racial inequality in educational opportunity, then, we must address racial segregation among schools.”

I am pleased to see Reardon so clearly describe the realities his research exposes, but I am frankly concerned that—in a society his own 2011 research demonstrates is rapidly resegregating economically as families with means move farther and farther into the exurbs—it will be politically difficult to address the concerns his research uncovers.

What is certain is that this new research confirms what many have believed is a catastrophic mistake in two-decades  of “accountability-based school reform.”  This is the test-and-punish regime imposed at the federal level by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, followed by programs like Race to the Top and policies adopted across the states to punish teachers who were supposed to work harder and smarter to close achievement gaps or their schools would be punished.

Ohio continues to pursue this most punitive kind of education policy at the state level.  Last week, for example, the Plain Dealer‘s Rich Exner released a set of bar graphs demonstrating by simple correlation that on Ohio’s 2019 school district report cards by which the state rates and ranks its 610 school districts, the “A” districts serve wealthy students and the “F” districts serve poor students. This is the very kind of simple correlation between poverty and low test scores that Reardon’s exhaustive study confirms.

The problem is that the Ohio Senate Education Committee is determined to intensify a regime of autocratic state takeovers of low-scoring school districts—all of them serving concentrations of children in poverty. These policymakers blame the educators in low-scoring schools as the problem.  At a recent legislative hearing, one Ohio state senator bluntly demanded: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?” The state has already seized school districts in Youngstown, Lorain and East Cleveland, and the Ohio Senate threatens future takeovers of several more districts serving poor students, including Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Canton.  Reardon’s new study demonstrates that members of the Ohio Senate Education Committee are mistaken in their contention that top-down autocratic governance changes will close achievement gaps caused by concentrated family and neighborhood poverty.

In their new report, Reardon and his colleagues demonstrate that low-scoring schools serving concentrations of very poor children are the manifestation of our society’s rising inequality and the concentration of poverty in racially segregated communities.  The schools themselves are not the cause.

Ohio Senate Education Committee Blames Educators While Underfunding Schools in the State’s Poorest Communities

Members of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, who have been holding hearings on a new state school district takeover plan, continue to scapegoat the teachers and educational leaders in the school districts which serve concentrations of our state’s poorest children.

Despite a large body of research correlating standardized test scores with aggregate family and neighborhood income, Bill Phillis reports that twice last week at a hearing convened by the Senate Education Committee, one senator repeatedly asked: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?”  The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell quotes Senator Bill Coley, who mused: “I think its maybe the wrong people are running the show and we need to try something different.”

I guess these guys adhere to the old idea that if we were merely to exchange the staffs of the richest and the poorest school districts in the state, the challenges for students in poor communities would magically disappear.  Instead, research shows that economic segregation—where wealthy families are moving farther and farther into the exurbs—has been rapidly accelerating.  Our senators must imagine that public school educators can, on their own, swiftly erase the alarming and growing economic gap between children growing up in pockets of extreme privilege and children segregated in our most impoverished city neighborhoods or living in remote rural areas.

There is a lot of evidence, however, that Ohio’s state senators are mistaken when they blame schools and public school educators.  The state takeovers are based on a set of overly complex and opaque calculations that yield the  school district grades on a state report card.  This year’s state report card ratings were released just last week.  It is not surprising, given what is well known about the correlation of standardized test scores with family and community wealth, that nine of the top ten report card scorers in Ohio are wealthy suburbs of Ohio’s big cities: Solon, Rocky River, Chagrin Falls, Beachwood, Brecksville-Broadview Heights, and Bay Village—suburbs of Cleveland; Madeira and Indian Hill—suburbs of Cincinnati; and Ottawa Hills—a suburb of Toledo.

In fact, yesterday, the Plain Dealer‘s data wonk, Rich Exner published a stunning story on the correlation of Ohio’s report card grades with family income.  Here are his findings: “The latest set of Ohio school report cards not only provided a scorecard for each district statewide – they once again drove home the point that wealthier districts do better on such reports. For example, incomes in the “A” districts were three times higher than those in the “F” districts, and the child poverty rate was 13 times higher in the worst performing districts, cleveland.com found. To get an idea of how closely report card grades from the Ohio Department of Education follow demographic factors, cleveland.com compared those grades to U.S. Census Bureau community data for household income, child poverty and the education level of the adults. In nearly every key report card category, the trends followed census data closely. For example, taking the median household income for each district, the average among those getting “A” overall grades was $95,423. It was $65,307 for B-graded districts, $54,058 for C-graded districts, $44,428 for D-graded districts and $32,658 for F-graded districts. In the A districts, 58.5% of the adults age 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree. That share drops to 17.1% for D-graded districts and 16.3% for F-graded districts. There are outliers, of course. They will be highlighted in an upcoming story. But overall, the trends hold true.”

An enormous body of academic research confirms Exner’s finding that those who judge the quality of public schools by their standardized test scores fail to consider the enormous consequences of economic inequality and poverty. The problems have been exposed by research in a number of disciplines.

In an exhaustive book-long analysis in 2017, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the design and use of standardized testing, demonstrates the many ways standardized-test-based-accountability distorts and undermines the educational process itself and the reasons why standardized tests are an inappropriate way to measure the quality of schools. Koretz explains that school districts serving primarily privileged students and school districts serving concentrations of poor children cannot be held to the same timelines for meeting specific standards: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130)

In Ohio, in a September 4, 2019 report, economist Howard Fleeter explains: “National research indicates that economically disadvantaged students typically cost at least 30% more to educate than do non-disadvantaged students. However… Ohio’s current formula only provides additional funding at less than 20% of the base cost…. Funding is an even lower percentage in districts with less than 100% economically disadvantaged students.”

In an appendix to the same report, Fleeter adds that over the past decade, Ohio has systematically underfunded the very school districts that Ohio’s state senators propose to try to address with governance changes through state takeover:

  • “For much of the past 30+ years, funding for economically disadvantaged students has increased at a far slower rate than the foundation level. Even worse, poverty funding has actually decreased by 13% from FY09 to FY18.
  • “Since 2001, the rate of increase in the number of low income students has been nearly 3 times as great as the rate of increase in state funding for these students.
  • “Funding for economically disadvantaged students in Ohio has become significantly more structured and restricted in the past 15 years as funding has been focused on programs related to the additional needs of these students and away from unrestricted grants.
  • “There has never been an objective study to determine the adequate level of funding for the programs needed to serve economically disadvantaged students.
  • “The focus on funding programs for economically disadvantaged students has largely ignored the impact of poverty on the social and emotional needs of low income children. These issues need to be addressed alongside – and arguably before – the academic needs of these children.”

The National Education Policy Center’s  Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel summarize the research: “(W)e need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement. A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities… Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty. While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism…. But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

What is the punitive state takeover plan currently being considered by the Ohio Senate Education Committee? The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell reports that the plan closely resembles the plan the committee failed to negotiate into the biennial budget passed in July.  O’Donnell writes: “The latest plan… is similar to plans floated by the Senate last spring, but which never won enough support to pass… The plan… eliminates the controversial ‘Academic Distress Commissions,’ and CEOs that take over for local school boards today after three years of failing grades on state report cards. In their place would be a new State Transformation Board that oversees improvement efforts across the state, and new School Improvement Commissions… for each district that does not improve. Those commissions would have many powers similar to the Academic Distress Commissions today.”  For example, the School Improvement Commissions would still have the power to overrule a school district’s elected board of education.  (Here is a detailed description of the School Transformation Plan the Senate proposed last spring.)

Last week, Ohio State Senators Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) and Tina Maharath (D-Columbus) formally called for an overhaul of the way the state calculates the report cards on which the state takeovers are based.  Fedor, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, explains: “There are serious flaws in the way we calculate districts’ grades… Report cards don’t reflect the quality of the education children receive nor the progress they make. The current measures are not meaningful for the purpose of assessing the district contribution to learning. They penalize large and high-poverty districts, which they threaten with state takeovers. The State recognizes the report card is flawed and depicts a false narrative for our communities and school districts. The legislature has the power to fix these mistakes, and we need to do that immediately.”  Fedor and Maharath explain: “The Progress grade, which represents 20 percent of a district’s total grade, is particularly unfair because the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) uses a formula to adjust for the district’s size that penalizes the grade of large school districts… If a district makes progress, but not as much as the average school district in the state, their grade will be low – not giving credit for actual percentage growth.”

The state report cards not only target the school districts serving very poor children with state takeover but they also feed racial and economic housing segregation by encouraging families to avoid poor and mixed income communities where the schools may be serving their students well despite overall lagging scores. The state report card grades are an example of state-sponsored educational redlining.

And like the legislators on the Senate Education Committee who blame teachers and school administrators for school districts’ aggregate test scores, the state report cards encourage the scapegoating of the dedicated educators who choose to serve the children living in Ohio’s poorest communities.

L.A. Teachers’ Strike Is Ending, but Economic and Racial Inequity Remain Along with State Funding Problems

Los Angeles teachers reached a tentative deal to end their strike yesterday morning. Teachers began voting on the agreement later in the day, and it was expected that teachers would return to their classrooms today. At noon yesterday, the Los Angeles TimesHoward Blume reported that the agreement includes a 6 percent raise, smaller classes, and a promise to create 30 Community Schools with wraparound medical and social services for students and their families. Even as the teachers won some of the protections they demanded for their students, however, years of serious school funding inequity, compounded by racial and economic segregation of students across the district’s schools will continue as major challenges for the school district.

Addressing the Los Angeles teachers’ strike for The Guardian, last week Andrew Gumbel untangled the impact on the state’s public schools of California’s taxing constraints wound together with racial segregation and explosive inequality: “California once had one of the best funded, most envied public education systems in the United States. Now schoolteachers in Los Angeles, who went on strike… to vent years of frustration, say they struggle with overcrowded classrooms and children whose need for academic support, psychological services and English-language coaching outstrips anything they can provide.  Many schools do not have a full-time nurse or counselor.  In many of the poorer neighborhoods—in south L.A., or the north-eastern San Fernando Valley—the library opens rarely. Janitorial service has become so spotty that some teachers have resorted to buying their own cleaning supplies and going over their own classrooms with rags and a mop at the end of a long day. It’s a grim picture.”

Gumbel described the power of money in a state and a public school district with explosive economic inequality: “California has a greater concentration of billionaires and holders of university doctorates than any place on earth. Yet it is also a state of vast inequalities and pervasive poverty, particularly in rural areas and in the blighted neighborhoods of its biggest cities… And the gulf between rich and poor has grown only wider as a result of bitter ideological warfare over schools, taxes and property values.”

First there was Proposition 13, passed in 1978.  An economist tells Gumbel, “People always come back to Prop. 13 because a lot of the other changes since are a result, either direct or indirect, of that vote.”  Gumbel adds: “(M)uch like the Brexit vote, Prop. 13 was deemed untouchable, a ‘third rail’ of California politics that elected representatives approached at their peril.”

Gumbel explains: “Proposition 13 drastically cut and capped property taxes and hobbled the ability of California counties—and indirectly, the state—to raise money for schools and other key social programs. The initiative, which passed with close to 65% support, was billed as a grassroots tax revolt against a backdrop of high inflation, rising interest rates and a perception of out-of-control public spending.  Overnight, the tax revenue available to pay for public schooling was slashed by one-third…”

But Prop. 13 is only part of the reason teachers have been striking today in Los Angeles: “There is… a second explanation, one that knocks some of the shine off California’s golden reputation as a beacon of educational progressivism in the 1950s and early 1960s: that the school system, like the state itself, has always been beset by racial and economic inequalities and what has changed over time has merely been the severity of the same obstinate underlying problem.  Back in the days when property taxes accounted for more than 50% of school funding, counties and neighborhoods with higher property values were able to direct much more money to the local education system. That meant cities had vastly better schools than rural areas, and affluent white suburbs were far ahead of black and Latino neighborhoods, many of which, at the same time, were still subject to curfew laws and other forms of… racial segregation.”

After Prop. 13 in 1978, writes Gumbel, “In San Francisco…  a crucial number of richer families lost faith and sent their children to private school instead. Many other affluent communities, though, found workarounds to maintain quality, whether that was cities funding local schools directly, or persuading voters to approve a schools-directed ‘parcel tax’—in essence, a voluntary property tax of a few hundred dollars per home.  In Beverly Hills, infamously, the high school played host for years to an oil rig next to its baseball diamond and used the royalties to fund the entire district.”

Last October, The Stanford Daily described new research by the university’s center for Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE): “Among the findings were evidence of an achievement gap prior to kindergarten and an estimate that an additional $25.6 billion, marking a 38 percent increase in (school) spending, would be required to meet state education goals.”  PACE conducted a similar study in 2007; the new research is a ten-year update.

Commenting on the study which incorporated contributions from 50 scholars at Stanford, Vanderbilt, Harvard, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and other universities, one of the lead researchers, Stanford’s Sean Reardon summarizes its primary conclusion: “We’re not failing our rich kids… We’re not, as a state, providing as much educational opportunity for our low-and middle-income communities and kids.”

The Stanford Daily‘s report continues: “The report indicated that there is a persistent economic and racial achievement gap in California that well surpasses the national average.  While students in affluent areas in California match the average performance of affluent areas nationwide, students in low-income California districts are scoring an average of a full grade level behind low-income students in other states… The racial achievement gap between black and white students, and between Latino and white students, is also more significant in California than in most other states… Some of these inequities may tie back to concerns over funding…. Public schools are allotted (state) government funding, which can then be supplemented with local funding sources such as property taxes and local bonds—funds that are in much greater supply in high-income areas… According to the California Budget and Policy Center, the state paid $10,291 per pupil in 2016, lower than 40 other states that year…   (T)he per-pupil funding amount is often doubled by local resources in areas that can afford them….”

The PACE researchers advocate for expanding early childhood education to address the serious economic achievement gap that already exists when California’s children enter Kindergarten. They also commend the state for recent reforms, including a new, 2013, Local Control Funding Formula: “The new policy is more targeted to high-need students, providing districts and schools that serve more at-risk students with more funding and permitting more local control over funding allocation.”  In the past the state addressed special needs funding through categorical grants which didn’t provide school districts serving high-needs students enough flexibility, according to the PACE report.

But the bottom line in California, according to the PACE report, is the urgent need for a 38 percent increase in California school spending—an additional $25.6 billion—with much of the greatest need in the schools serving California’s poorest students—many of them English language learners. Those numbers are essential background for understanding this month’s teachers’ strike in Los Angeles.

This blog previously covered the range of issues underneath the Los Angeles teachers’ strike here, here, and here.