Just Thinking

Factoring Poverty Levels Into School Evaluations

by Richard Gilman

Some of the state’s “best” schools, judged just by test scores, are part of the same school district as some of the “worst.”

That will seem implausible, if not impossible, to all those who have been led to believe that school districts — if they’re good enough — need only impose their teaching genius on students to get them to perform at the highest levels.

But the Paradise Valley Unified School District, not unlike other large school districts in the state, straddles the Great Education Divide separating the have’s from the have not’s.  On one side are well-off students who score higher on student achievement tests.  On the other side are the less well off who score lower.

As such the district provides insight not only into the state’s biggest education problem but also into the ongoing philosophical and political divisions that it causes.  Those divisions are on full display once again as the state Senate debates the governor’s proposal to tie additional education funding to school performance.

Paradise Valley Unified is near but distinct from the town of the same name.  The Education Divide that splits the district is located just a little south and west of Loop 101 as it bends around the northern-most edges of Phoenix and Scottsdale.

The difference from one side to the other is stark.  To the north and east are the well-to-do neighborhoods of north Scottsdale.  Their third-graders, for instance at Grayhawk Elementary, score among the very best in the state in math and reading.  By contrast, to the south and west of the divide are the hurting neighborhoods of north Phoenix.  Their third-graders, for instance at Aire Libre Elementary, score among the very worst.

Too Obvious to Ignore

Mind you, this is one school district.   The glaring difference in results demonstrates quite graphically that education is divided into upper and lower classes not by school districts, nor by schools or teachers, but by the socio-economic conditions in which they operate.

This simple truth has far-reaching consequences for the state.  Looked at on a statewide basis, Arizona sits south of a national Education Divide that stretches across the country from South Carolina to California.  All the states below the Divide score below the norm on student achievement tests.   They also tend to spend less per pupil on education, have higher minority populations, and lower family incomes.

A spokesman for the governor has discounted a report by ASU education professor David Garcia showing a correlation between poverty and performance, saying he “cherry-picked” his data by looking only at the largest schools.  The governor’s own analysis was said to show only minimal correlation.  That, folks, is blarney.

Thinking Arizona graphic by Tony BustosThe proxy used by educators to measure socio-economic conditions is the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.  Arizona has a lot of them – a startlingly high 57 percent of all students are eligible for a fully free lunch according to the claims put in by the schools.

Scatter diagrams plotting the performance of 1,462 schools across the state – the entire universe of schools for which all the comparative data is available – show an unmistakable correlation of poverty and performance.  As schools’ percentage of students on free or reduced lunches goes up, their performance on achievement tests slopes downward.

The graphs displayed here are for elementary schools.  The same pattern occurs with high schools and middle schools.

Better-off schools end up getting most of the good grades awarded by the state.  Paradise Valley, for instance, has 29 schools where less than half the student population qualifies for a free lunch.  They pulled in 14 of the 15 A’s given to the district, and 12 of the 16 B’s.

Meanwhile, worse-off schools get most of the black marks.  Paradise Valley has 14 schools where more half the students get free lunch.  Those schools received 7 of the district’s 10 C’s and both of the D’s.  One school beats the odds, and therein lays some lessons.

Any suggestion that the disparity between “best” and “worst” is the fault of the schools is vigorously resisted by Paradise Valley Supt. James P. Lee.

“Some of our best teachers are in our ‘D’ schools.  They’re laying it on the line for these kids,” he declares, then briefly pauses to load up more words to underscore his point.  “They have a passion for working with these kids and these communities. It’s their calling.”

For this, he believes, the teachers and their principals deserve to be sainted, not castigated.  “And yet,” Lee laments, “all they hear is what a bad job they’re doing.”

Thinking Arizona graphic by Tony BustosThat’s because the governor and elements of the Legislature persist in the misconception that school performance is solely about the performance of schools.   They can’t get through their heads, or at least they don’t want to acknowledge, that the grades the state hands out are as much or more about neighborhood circumstances as they are about educational quality.

Senate Bill 1444, which would tie a rare increase in education funding to school performance, is just the latest in the ongoing campaign to promote schools that are “good” and wash the state’s hands of those that are “bad.”

The pretense is performance. But what the steady stream of “reforms” really does is undercut the state’s responsibilities to those who are harder to educate, including our minority populations.  And because so many young Arizonans fall into this category, these misguided actions relegate the state to a lesser place.

To lift itself out of the education mire, Arizona has to commit itself to helping the worse-off as well as the better-off.  Rather than denying the effect of these differences, we should be making use of them.

We can start by stopping the one-dimensional practice of evaluating, and rewarding, schools based on achievement scores alone.   Instead we should evaluate their achievement within the context of their socio-economic circumstances.

This simple change will put all schools in the game.  There can be no hiding, and no excuses, for schools at any level when their performance is evaluated against those in similar circumstances.

Better-off schools should be expected to do better than the rest.  Woe be those that, while they might look good versus the pack as a whole, actually tail their peer group.   They need to do more than get by on their good fortune.

Worse-off schools will have their own incentives to improve.  Those that lag even their own peer group have no one to blame but themselves. Those that rise above their surroundings should get the credit they richly deserve.

Revising the system in this way will result in more competition, more self-induced changes, more improvement for all schools no matter their circumstances.  That’s one of the revisions Arizona needs to make if we are to raise ourselves out of the education hole.

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