High-poverty schools make progress on school grades

High-poverty schools made impressive gains in the 2014 A-to-F grades that the Indiana State Board of Education released last week. So did other schools. Across the board, a lot more Indiana schools earned As and Bs and a lot fewer were labeled with Ds and Fs.

But the performance of schools serving the neediest children jumps out. Among the quarter of schools with the highest percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, 30.2 percent earned As. Nearly half got As or Bs.

Just a year ago, only 20 percent of schools in that category got As. The year before that, just 12.7 percent of high-poverty schools got As. That’s real progress.

It’s still true that school grades reflect students’ socioeconomic circumstances. Indiana’s grading system, especially for elementary and middle schools, is based largely on students’ performance and individual growth on test scores. And research shows that test scores correlate with poverty.

Looking at the grades, you get the impression it’s nearly impossible for a low-poverty school to get a C or worse. And by low-poverty, I don’t mean just Carmel and Fishers. In the quarter of Indiana schools with the least poverty, up to 36 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

  • Schools in the highest-poverty group were still as likely to get a D or F as an A.
  • 65 of the 73 schools that got Fs were in the highest-poverty quartile.
  • More than 90 percent of the most affluent quarter of schools got an A or B.

Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute started this approach with a blog post in 2012. He put Indiana schools in four groups according to the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, then looked at school grades for each group. His point was that the state’s grading system was biased against high-poverty schools.

I picked up the methodology in 2013 and continue it this year. Here’s the breakdown in chart form.

Grades and Poverty Chart - cropped

Looking at schools at both extremes of the wealth-poverty spectrum yields a picture that’s a bit more … extreme. Among the just over 200 schools where fewer than 20 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, nearly 90 percent got As.

But even among the very highest-poverty schools – where more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches – one in four schools got an A. Even in long-suffering Indianapolis Public Schools, nearly as many schools earned As this year as got Fs. IPS raised its district grade to D.

High-Low Poverty Chart - gropped

One conclusion is that teachers and administrators are figuring out this school grade business. More than half of all schools earned As this year – up from 37.5 percent in 2012.

Will students retain what they learn in order to pass the tests? Are the gains in English and math scores coming at the expense of the arts, social studies and other areas? Is school becoming a grind as schools focus relentlessly on their grades? Are testing issues “sucking the oxygen out of the room,” as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently wrote?

Those debates will and should continue. But if more students are able to pass tests that measure needed skills, it’s hard to argue that isn’t a good thing.

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One thought on “High-poverty schools make progress on school grades

  1. Pingback: School grades still reflect student demographics | School Matters

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