Student test scores are often lower in urban schools districts that serve mostly disadvantaged and minority children than they are in suburban and wealthier districts.
Now a new study, published in the journal Sociology of Education, finds that these test scores speak more to what is happening outside the classroom than how schools themselves are performing.
“We found that if you look at how much students are learning during the school year, the difference between schools serving mostly advantaged students and those serving mostly disadvantaged students is essentially zero,” said Dr. Douglas Downey, lead author of the new study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
“Test scores at one point in time are not a fair way to evaluate the impact of schools.”
Many school districts have moved away from evaluating schools by test scores, and are instead using a “growth” or “value-added” measure to see how much students learn over a calendar year.
While these growth models are considered to be a big improvement over using test scores at one point in time, they still don’t account for the summers, during which kids from advantaged areas don’t backtrack in their learning the way children from disadvantaged areas often do.
This “summer loss” for disadvantaged students isn’t surprising, given the difficulties they face with issues like family instability and food insecurity, Downey said.
“What is remarkable is not what happens in summer, but what happens when these disadvantaged students go back to school: The learning gap essentially disappears. They tend to learn at the same rate as those from the wealthier, suburban schools,” he said.
“That is shocking to a lot of people who just assume that schools in disadvantaged areas are not as good.”
For the study, the research team used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Cohort 2010-2011, which involved more than 17,000 students in 230 schools around the country. This study used a subsample of about 3,000 of the children who participated.
Children took reading tests at the beginning and end of kindergarten and near completion of their first and second grades.
That allowed the researchers to calculate how much children learned during three school periods and compare that to what happened during the summers.
This approach is similar to how new drugs are sometimes tested in medical research, Downey explained. In drug trials, researchers compare how patients fare while they are taking a drug to when they are not.
“In our case, we think of schools as the treatment and the summers as the control period when the students aren’t receiving treatment,” he said.
The findings reveal that children in schools serving disadvantaged students, on average, saw their reading scores rise about as much during the school year as did those in more advantaged schools.
That doesn’t mean all schools were equally good, Downey said. But the results showed that the “good” schools weren’t all concentrated in the wealthier areas and the “bad” schools in the poor areas.
Downey said there are limitations to this study, most importantly that the data doesn’t allow researchers to observe students in later grades.
A 2008 study, also published in the Sociology of Education, found similar results, but with less comprehensive data than this new research. Downey said he has been somewhat surprised that the 2008 study and this new research hasn’t engaged education researchers more.
“The field has not responded as energetically as I expected. I think our findings undermine a lot of social science assumptions about what role schools play in promoting disadvantage,” he said.
Instead of being “engines of inequality” — as some have argued — the findings suggest schools are neutral or even slightly compensate for inequality elsewhere.
Disadvantaged kids start with poorer home environments and neighborhoods and begin school behind students who come from wealthier backgrounds, Downey said.
“But when they go to school they stop losing ground. That doesn’t agree with the traditional story about how schools supposedly add to inequality,” he said. “We are probably better off putting more energy toward addressing the larger social inequalities that are producing these large gaps in learning before kids even enter school.”
Downey emphasized that the study doesn’t mean that school districts don’t need to invest in disadvantaged schools.
“As it stands, schools mostly prevent inequality from increasing while children are in school,” he said. “With more investments, it may be possible to create schools that play a more active role in reducing inequality.”
Downey conducted the study with David Quinn of the University of Southern California and Melissa Alcaraz, a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State.
Source: Ohio State University