Poverty and Testing
IT'S POVERTY, STUPID
The connection between family income and school achievement has been well documented (see the links at the end of this post ) yet policymakers and the media continue to blame schools, teachers, and the students themselves for low achievement.
David Berliner notes that there are out-of-school factors to student achievement including medical care, food insecurity, family and community characteristics, and environmental pollutants. Included among the latter is lead poisoning, which contributes to low achievement levels and is more damaging to children of poverty.
Policymakers, however, have a vested interest in deflecting the blame for low achievement onto schools, teachers, and students. If poverty and its side effects are ignored, then those who are tasked with helping reduce poverty and, by extension, its side effects, are not to blame.
The articles in this post discuss the effects of poverty on student achievement. Achievement, in nearly all the articles, is measured solely by standardized test scores. Standardized test scores, aside from keeping testing companies in business, "measure what matters least." Alfie Kohn wrote,
What generally passes for a test of reading comprehension is a series of separate questions about short passages on random topics. These questions "rarely examine how students interrelate parts of the text and do not require justifications that support the interpretations"; indeed, the whole point is the "quick finding of answers rather than reflective interpretation."It's been nearly two decades since the US Congress passed No Child Left Behind, yet we're still overusing and misusing standardized tests.
In mathematics, the story is much the same. An analysis of the most widely used standardized math rests found that only 3 percent of the questions required "high level conceptual knowledge" and only 5 percent tested "high level thinking skills such as problem solving and reasoning." Typically the rests aim to make sure that students have memorized a series of procedures, not that they understand what they are doing.
New Reports Confirm Persistent Child Poverty While Policymakers Blame Educators and Fail to Address Core Problem
Core problems of poverty and underemployment are also discussed in this post...as well as how the federal share of funding for education has declined.
The correlation of academic achievement with family income has been demonstrated now for half a century, but policymakers, like those in the Ohio legislature who are debating punitive school district takeovers, prefer to blame public school teachers and administrators instead of using the resources of government to assist struggling families who need better access to healthcare, quality childcare, better jobs, and food assistance.
...child poverty affects academic achievement. Policy makers, however, in the spirit of test-based, sanctions-based school accountability, are instead determined to impose punishments on the school districts serving poor children. They imagine that if they shift the blame onto teachers, nobody will notice that they are themselves failing to invest the resources and power of government in programs to support the needs of America’s poorest children.
STANDARDIZED TESTING 101
New Test, Same Results: ILEARN Reflects Family Income
Indiana's new ILEARN test yields results similar to the old tests -- poor students score lower than more affluent students. The scatter-plot graph included shows the tendency towards high achievement and higher socioeconomic status.
The big news about ILEARN has been that local schools and teachers should not be held accountable for the low test scores. Implied by this is the assumption that schools and teachers, under different circumstances, should be held accountable for ILEARN test scores.
Student test scores should be used diagnostically -- to drive instruction. But because out-of-school factors have an impact on test scores, teachers should not be held solely accountable for student test scores. Because of those same out-of-school factors, schools should not be held solely accountable either. There are just too many outside variables that impact student test scores. Some of those variables, by the way, are the responsibility of policymakers. For example, are teachers responsible for the effect of lead on their students' learning because then-governor Mike Pence ignored lead contamination affecting East Chicago's children?
Additionally, student achievement tests have not been developed to evaluate schools and teachers. Doing so is an invalid use of the tests. The assumption that student test scores are the sole result of teacher or school quality is simply mistaken.
Among the [many] things that Indiana policymakers need to fix when it comes to our schools are 1), they need to assume their own share of responsibility for out-of-school factors affecting Indiana students' school achievement, and 2), they need to end the misuse and overuse of standardized tests.
Indiana’s new standardized test, ILEARN, may be new and even “computer adaptive,” but it has at least one thing in common with its predecessor ISTEP+. Scores on ILEARN correspond to socioeconomic status. Put simply: The poorer the families served by your school, the poorer your school will perform on the test. Shocking, we know.
Some news reports about the test talk just about the overall low scores. Others go skin deep by comparing the average scores of schools and districts But scratch the surface, and you’ll find that this test—despite its price tag of $45 million—delivers more of the same.
Proficiency gaps deserve a look
How much money do we spend on our schools? Is there a difference between how much is spent on schools filled with black, Asian, multiracial, or Hispanic students? How much segregation is there in Indiana schools?
The disparities are stark. Statewide, 43.3% of white students were proficient on both the ILEARN math and English/language arts assessments compared to 14.8% of black students. Proficiency rates were 56.7% for Asian students, 31.8% for multiracial students and 24.2% for Hispanic students.
And yes, poverty matters. Just 22.9% of students who qualified by family income for free or reduced-price meals scored proficient, compared to 50.9% of students who didn’t qualify. (Gaps are similar, overall, for public, private and charter schools, according to my calculations).
Achievement gaps in schools driven by poverty, study finds
"If you want to be serious about decreasing achievement gaps, you have to take on segregation." -- Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
They found that the gaps were “completely accounted for” by poverty, with students in high-poverty schools performing worse than those from schools with children from wealthier families.
“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,” concluded the paper by academics, led by Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
...because race and poverty are so closely related, the only way to close the gap is to racially integrate schools. He pointed to those who advocate that schools think less about integration and instead try to improve all schools. That hasn’t worked, he said.
“If you want to be serious about decreasing achievement gaps,” he said, “you have to take on segregation.”
Study links brain anatomy, academic achievement, and family income
I've included this 2015 report on an MIT study showing that poverty has an impact on children's brain development...which might account for a portion of the economic test score gap.
A new study led by researchers at MIT and Harvard University offers another dimension to this so-called “achievement gap”: After imaging the brains of high- and low-income students, they found that the higher-income students had thicker brain cortex in areas associated with visual perception and knowledge accumulation. Furthermore, these differences also correlated with one measure of academic achievement — performance on standardized tests.
“Just as you would expect, there’s a real cost to not living in a supportive environment. We can see it not only in test scores, in educational attainment, but within the brains of these children,” says MIT’s John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and one of the study’s authors. “To me, it’s a call to action. You want to boost the opportunities for those for whom it doesn’t come easily in their environment.”
Relationship between SES and Academic Achievement