Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Effect of Poverty on State Test Performance

All Louisiana school districts struggle with the adverse effects of student poverty on academic performance
The following chart ranks the school districts in Louisiana according to overall student performance on the 1018 LEAP and end of course tests. Note that even the wealthiest school district (The Central Community School District) has 37.5% of its students who were classified as economically disadvantaged. (This is based on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch) I have divided the ranking of districts into 4 groups based upon approximately 10 percentage point changes in performance on state tests. The average performance and the average poverty rates are listed at the bottom of each group. The top two performing groups are the following: (Click on the figure to enlarge it)

The highest performing school systems in Louisiana, unfortunately, have an average of 55.8% of their students who are economically disadvantaged as determined by free lunch eligibility. Only 48.3% of the students in the top performing group of school systems achieved a score of Mastery or above on their state tests. Note: Be aware also that the Louisiana raw cut scores are set so low, that mastery performance on some tests could mean that as low as only 39% of the questions on the test were answered correctly. 

Just a few school systems score well despite fairly high poverty
It looks like two school systems (Lafourche and Paquemines) in the top performing group, achieved relatively high test performance despite the fact that they had over 70% of their students classified as economically disadvantaged. The effectiveness of teachers in those two districts may be significantly improving test scores in such moderately high poverty districts. There may also be other, more positive socio-economic factors such as stronger family units and better role models in such districts which could also boost scores. This could be an interesting area for further study by social scientists.
School districts with extreme poverty have seemingly unsurmountable obstacles to academic achievement
The following is a ranking of the lowest two performing groups of school systems: (Click on the figure to enlarge it)

Now take a look at the lowest performing group of school systems on the chart above, and note the extremely high average percentage of students (90%) who are classified as economically disadvantaged. Note also that only 16% of their students achieved a score of Mastery or above on the state tests.

It seems that when a school system gets to the 90% poverty level, its student test performance plummets to extremely low levels. Apparently, teacher effectiveness is not overcoming the extreme effects of poverty on test performance.

These data demonstrate why it is unfair to grade schools based on student test scores. The American Statistical Association tells us that the expertise of teachers in schools has only about 10% effect on the average performance of students. The data for Louisiana shows that year after year, the school systems with the highest percentage of students who are economically deprived score consistently in the bottom quartile of the rankings and consequently their schools are labeled as D or F. Generally we can predict the letter grade of a school based purely on the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged. So what is the purpose of repeatedly listing such schools as failing schools? Does anyone still believe that the teachers in schools serving a large percentage of economically disadvantaged students are not competent or dedicated?

There are several factors other than poverty that also affect the performance of students on state tests, but they are not as big a factor as poverty. According to the data released by the LDOE, students that are English language learners have the lowest average performance, but these students also usually attend schools in high poverty school zones. 

Vouchers have not provided solutions
For years we have heard from education reformers that we have to free students trapped in failing schools by allowing them to transfer to private schools. Well that experiment has now been tried in Louisiana for several years by allowing vouchers for such students to attend private schools. But the Research Alliance of New Orleans from Tulane University has found that such voucher students perform at an equal or lower level after they make their escape from public schools.

The relatively high average percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged in even the highest rated public systems in Louisiana demonstrates why Louisiana as a whole does not produce anywhere near the test score average of states with much fewer students living in poverty.  Massachusetts, for example has 32% of their students, statewide, who are economically disadvantaged. This is significantly less than the 56% of students with economic disadvantage for the highest performing group of Louisiana school districts.

Louisiana is not alone in the effects of poverty in student test performance. States like New Mexico, Mississippi, and Alabama are fighting the same battle with their national test score rankings. It just does not make sense to blame the teachers and schools for such strong socio-economic effects. Constantly blaming and shaming schools does nothing for the students affected by poverty.

Maybe what we need instead of school reform is for our society to deal more effectively with reducing poverty!


Guy Baxter said...

"Note: Be aware also that the Louisiana raw cut scores are set so low, that mastery performance on some tests could mean that as low as only 39% of the questions on the test were answered correctly."
For which tests are the cut scores so low? I would guess Algebra 1 is one of them.
Where can I see this information on cut scores?

Michael Deshotels said...

Thank you for your interest Guy. I just recently received data from the LDOE using a public records request. I will be posting links to the cut scores in just a couple of days. The 39% figure in my blog was the minimum score for Mastery for 8th grade math.

Michael Deshotels said...

The Algebra I cut score for Mastery in 2018 was set at 34%.

Anonymous said...

Curious about the term economically disadvantaged...some parishes are receiving free lunch and breakfast for all students until 2022 due to the flood in 2016. Students aren’t filing the form because there isn’t a need to when everyone is free to eat lunch. I’m sorry that information doesn’t seem correct in my opinion. The flood still has many people living below the poverty level and now in further debt.

Anonymous said...

Curious as to the English II percentage for mastery.

Jeremy said...

I seem to recall that you made a similar post a year or two ago and the results were the same. The higher the poverty level, the lower the test scores.

Also, weren't there a couple of parishes back then that high high poverty and high scores that were found to be cheating? Or am I thinking of something elsewhere in the US (which is quite possible).

Michael Deshotels said...

English II is 44.7% for Mastery. Will put out full tables for all tests later today.

Michael Deshotels said...

JEREMY: I am informed by some local educators that cheating has been a problem in several districts. The LDOE has a policy of reporting suspected cheating to local district authorities. This has allowed districts to quietly correct some cheating without adverse publicity. In some states cheating teachers and administrators have gone to jail. The self policing policy failed when the cheater was a charter school, because there was no independent manager. LDOE was forced to take action in such cases. Computer based testing seems to have reduced cheating, which has drastically reduced some district scores. It is still possible to cheat, however, and with the intense pressures of school grading, it will continue.

MICHAEL Deshotels said...

Anonymous: Seems like the LDOE has a way of measuring poverty even when all students are placed on free lunch, but I don’t remember the method. Maybe some other reader can provide more info.

waymire01 said...

This entire argument is faulty. The number of students receiving free lunch is not an accurate indicator of the poverty level. Schools within a district are not equal.. at least not in Calcasieu parish. Our superintendent has openly admitted in public that our low income districts are not equal to the high income ones on any level.. including teaching staff, number of licensed teachers, materials and equipment, etc.

You just stated poor students are incapable of performing well by some fault of their own, cannot be taught by even the best teachers, and essentially dragging down a "good school".. which is so derogatory as to be obscene. I can't believe what I just read honestly.

Michael Deshotels said...

Waymire, I agree with you to some extent that we should not just blame poverty for all low test performance. But you seem to have overlooked the fact that I pointed out at least two school systems with higher than average poverty that had made it into the top tier of test performance. I suggested that we give credit and study them further. But my main point was that by putting excessive emphasis on test scores we are often driving our best and most innovative teachers away from high poverty schools, so the effect is the reverse of what we want.

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