Does a school simply reflect the neighborhoods around it or the socioeconomic backgrounds of its students? And does it then deepen or mitigate the inequality underpinning those circumstances? According a new working paper from educational equity researcher Sean Reardon, “it depends on where you are.”
Building on research presented during the Kinder Institute’s October KIForum, Reardon’s working paper uses a measure of educational opportunity meant to track student growth from grades three through eight utilizing standardized test scores for roughly 45 million students in more than 11,000 school districts across the country. While he says test scores are a limited measure, tracking a cohort’s progress through the years can provide better insight into what might be happening in the classroom. Many in education circles have argued for growth measures in favor of grade-level snapshots of testing performance but Reardon’s work provides perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of that growth across the country.
“This is sort of a central question because, if the reason that low-income school districts have low test scores and low opportunities is because they have less high quality school systems, then we ought to really invest in fixing those school systems,” said Reardon in October. “But if it’s because of things beyond the school’s control,” including socioeconomic segregation, “then maybe the place we should invest isn’t primarily in the school system or only in the school system, but we ought to think about investing as much in opportunities outside the school system.”
Published in December, his latest working paper suggests that some school districts are making progress, notably Chicago’s public schools. But that example also shows some of the limitations of his analysis, including the fact that it can’t account for students who leave or enter a district and how that affects overall scores, which could be significant in a district that’s closed or consolidated dozens of schools in recent years. The data also wraps charter schools results into those of their corresponding public schools.
Still, looking at growth provides new information for districts to work with. Reardon found that, for example, while Chicago, New York and suburban Henrico County, Virginia had similar eighth grade test scores, what happened prior to that, between third and eighth grade, varied tremendously. Chicago had well-above average growth while New York’s progress was average and Henrico County’s was low.
So which school districts show the most growth? According to an analysis by the New York Times, Chicago led, followed by Chandler Unified District in Arizona and Seattle public schools. Several Texas school districts were in the top 20, including in Plano, Frisco, Fort Bend County, Round Rock, Keller and Arlington.
The measure also offers a new look at well-documented disparities in education. The average growth rate for poor students, for example is 0.04 grade levels per year lower than the rate for non-poor students, writes Reardon. Similarly the average growth rate for black students is 0.055 grade levels per year lower than for white students. “These are meaningfully large, but not enormous,” concludes Reardon. Hispanic students, meanwhile, had an average growth rate that was slightly higher than white students. And girls had both higher average scores and higher growth rates than boys.
Importantly, even in districts with strong student growth, disparities persist. In the Fort Bend Independent School District, for example, where students showed an average growth of 5.6 years between third and eighth grade – 0.6 grade levels above the national average – there were still wide differences in performance between different student groups.
Overall, Reardon found that the socioeconomic status of students was still correlated to student performance on standardized tests and disparities persisted between economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students. But through measuring the growth of those students, he found that some school districts were able to create greater progress for students than others.
The research, Reardon argues, helps highlight districts that might be doing a better job than others at closing those gaps. “They provide, at a minimum, an existence of proof of the possibility that even schools in high-poverty communities can be effective. Now the challenge is to learn what conditions make that possible and how we can foster the same conditions everywhere.”
Houston schools in focus: