Here’s a question that arguably deserves more attention from education researchers and policy types: Why are some schools better than others at getting students from low-income families to pass tests?
We hear a lot about high-poverty schools that produce better test scores than you’d expect. We pay a lot of attention to no-excuses charter schools and public schools that focus relentlessly on data. But poor kids are scattered throughout all kinds of schools and school districts, urban, rural and suburban. And judging by test scores, some districts do a better job of helping them learn than others.
The Indiana Department of Education recently posted district-by-district and school-by-school passing rates on the ISTEP+ exam for “disaggregated groups” of students: minorities, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, English language learners and special-needs students.
The data are a carry-over from the No Child Left Behind Act, which required schools to hit targets for the percentage of students in each group who passed standardized tests.
The results vary from school to school – a lot. Looking at students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, for example, the proportion who passed both the math and English ISTEP+ exams in 2014 ranged from 85.9 percent to 45.2 percent. The state average was 62.3 percent.
Some of the districts with the lowest passing rates for free-and-reduced lunch students are high-poverty urban districts. But some aren’t. Some of the districts with the highest passing rates are low-poverty schools with relatively few poor students. But some aren’t. It’s a mix, with no obvious pattern.
Here’s a chart that plots districts’ ISTEP+ passing rates against their poverty rates. Each dot represents an Indiana school corporation. The horizontal axis is the percentage of free-and-reduce-price lunch students who pass both the math and English tests. The vertical axis is the percent of free-lunch students in each district. There’s a correlation – a tendency for schools with more poverty to have lower test-passing rates. But it’s not what you’d call a tight fit.
By contrast, ISTEP+ passing rates vary less for students from higher-income families. In nearly four of five school districts, passing rates are 80 percent or higher for students who pay for school lunches.
Another way to examine the data is to look at the gap between passing rates for paid-lunch students and free-and-reduced-price lunch students. In some districts, there’s virtually no gap at all. In others, passing rates are as much as 30 percentage points higher for paid-lunch students. Why would that be?
- Researchers have pointed out that free-and-reduced lunch data aren’t a very good measure of educational disadvantage. There’s poverty and then there’s poverty.
- And reduced-price lunch families … that could be a teacher, journalist or social worker with one kid in school and a spouse who’s staying home for now to care for the preschooler.
- Test scores are without question a flawed measure of school quality. No doubt some schools and some districts focus on test prep to the exclusion of more important activities.
That said, the data for disaggregated groups of students should give us something to think about. It’s disconcerting that the Monroe County Community School Corp. – the district where I live – has test performance gaps that are among the largest in the state.
For readers who can’t get enough data, below are links to spreadsheets with information for the following (Only districts with 100 or more students in each subgroup are included):
- Free-reduced lunch and paid lunch
- African-American and non-Hispanic white students
- Hispanic and non-Hispanic white students
- English language learners and non-ELL students
- Special education and non-special education students