Poverty and School Performance

November 28, 2018

Evaluating the Relationships Between Poverty and School Performance

One of the most critical issues facing K-12 education is the impact that poverty has on school performance.  This study first examines school performance using traditional metrics for school poverty levels (percent of student body that qualify for free and reduced lunch: FRL) and school performance (school achievement based on the aggregate test scores of its student body).  The results support prior research documenting the negative relationship between the level of poverty in a school and student achievement (the higher the poverty the lower the achievement).  However, when replacing the student achievement metric with a student growth metric, the relationship is significantly different.

This NWEA study argues that, while it is important to measure and report a school’s student achievement, it is often a function of the demographics of a school’s population rather than a school’s effectiveness at teaching.  Student growth tracks the learning of students regardless of their poverty level and is a more useful tool for comparing individual school performance. Sixty percent of schools with high poverty student populations had above average student growth.  And a larger percentage of high poverty schools demonstrated substantial growth than schools from wealthy communities.  The dramatic negative relationship between poverty and student achievement was much less evident when looking at student growth, and much more nuanced.

The implications of the study are profound. First, it highlights the need for school performance measures to include student growth in addition to school achievement.  Both are critical measures.  More importantly, it raises the question: If students make comparable progress during the school year regardless of their poverty level, what accounts for the significant differences in test scores.  One study tracked the performance of students by poverty level and their performance on tests administered at the beginning and end of each school year.  The data showed a clear pattern.  Students of all socio economic groups made comparable progress during the school year. The biggest, and compounding gaps, occurred during the summer months suggesting that poverty’s largest impact occurs outside of school.

Citation:Alexander, K. L., Entwisle, D. R., & Olson, L. S. (2001). Schools, achievement, and inequality: A seasonal perspective. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23, 171–191.

Link: https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2018/10/Evaluating-the-Relationships-Between-Poverty-and-School-Performance.pdf