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A-F Poverty Bias

October 27, 2012 16 comments

Friday’s editorial in the Oklahoman praising all things A-F tried to throw cold water on the idea that poverty matters. We’ve heard State Superintendent Janet Barresi do it. We’ve heard State Board of Education member Bill Price do it too. When someone mentions poverty, they usually say they don’t want to hear the myths and excuses.

Ok, then. Maybe facts will be more compelling.

I took the 100 schools with the highest poverty rates (as indicated by free/reduced lunch participation) in the state and the 100 schools with the lowest poverty rates in the state and explored how the grades fell among them*.

Here is the grade distribution of the high-poverty schools:

Letter Grade Distribution of High-Poverty Schools

A

B C D F

2

8 32 46

2

Here is the grade distribution of the low-poverty schools:

Letter Grade Distribution of Low-Poverty Schools 

A

B C D F
46 48 3 2

2

Ten of the poorest 100 schools made an A or B. Of the most affluent, 94 did.

The Oklahoman used some of the outliers to justify its case:

Those who attribute good school grades to socio-economic factors are off the mark. Several A schools were in rural communities that aren’t concentrations of wealth and privilege. The poverty rate in Canton is higher than the statewide rate. Average household income is 14 percent lower than the statewide average. Yet Canton High School got an A. At Cottonwood in Coal County, the poverty rate is 21 percent; household income is 30 percent lower than the statewide average. Yet Cottonwood received an A.

(By the way, school districts have been hearing about the Cottonwood Miracle for nearly two years now. That’s why the SDE hired the district’s retired superintendent to be the state’s Literacy Director. Unfortunately, she doesn’t come to meetings with school district people, which makes the miracle a little harder to replicate.)

I have said this often, and I’ll say it again. Poverty matters. Students facing all kinds of socioeconomic hurdles (money, family disruption, mobility during the school year) struggle in school. Every school works hard to mitigate those factors. But you can never build on last year’s gains because you likely no longer have last year’s kids. Schools with high levels of poverty also have high teacher turnover.

Nobody in public education denies that all schools should have the same goals for all students. And few reasonable people looking in from the outside would see these statistical anomalies and declare a trend. Yes, it’s possible for high-poverty schools to have high achievement. Yes, it’s possible for low-poverty schools to fall flat. Trends, however, will always revert to form. In this case, predictably and reliably, the inherent bias in accountability systems follows form – and fails.

*Note – I used 2011 Free/Reduced Lunch Data and eliminated schools not receiving report cards.

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