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Daily Dish: Understanding the Role of Poverty and Demographics in NAEP Scores

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November 03, 2015 05:37 pm


In the aftermath of the release of scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), more commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card, the country has been digesting and examining the results. For example, Hechinger Report columnist Jill Barshay asks the question: How can cities’ NAEP report cards be OK, when students are doing worse? In the article, Barshay explores how major demographic groups faired on the tests, zeroing in on New York City as a local sample.

In New York City, which is the largest school district in the nation, eighth grade math scores were practically unchanged between 2013 (the last time scores were released) and 2015, meaning they did not decline along with the rest of the nation’s eighth graders. However, white students in New York City fell seven points, meaning the average white student is now scoring below “proficient” instead of above, Barshay explains. Scores of African American students declined two points, and Asian students declined one point. With three of the city’s four major demographic groups, which make up more than 60 percent of the city’s public school students, receiving lower scores, how is possible that the city’s average math score was unchanged?

Barshay explains that the city’s gentrification has changed the demographics in the middle school classroom. In 2013, New York City’s eighth graders were 11 percent white, 31 percent African American, 42 percent Latino and 16 percent Asian. In 2015, this shifted to 15 percent white, 30 percent African American, 37 percent Latino and 17 percent Asian. As Barshay notes, the two demographic groups that on average score low, namely African American and Latino students, shrunk by 6 percentage points, whereas the groups that score high, whites and Asians, grew by 5 percentage points, which was enough to keep the score unchanged.

In a piece for EducationNext, Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Brandon L. Wright, managing editor and policy associate at the Institute, explore the role that poverty plays in America’s Mediocre Test Scores. The two examine the claim that poverty is the major factor that drives America’s meager academic achievement, in response to arguments that middling test scores reflect a “poverty crisis” and not an “education crisis.” As part of their exploration, they examine how poverty and factors related to a low-income family are strongly related to low test scores, as shown in the chart below.

In comparing the performance of low-income American students to their peers overseas, and examining America’s child-poverty rates in relation to other countries, Petrilli and Wright do find that poverty is a major factor in lackluster academic performance. However, they note that it is wrong to claim that America’s average scores are being lowered by the poor performance of low-income students. The scores show that in the U.S., affluent students outperform poor students, but do not outperform their peers in other countries. Therefore, they emphasize the need to work to improve the achievement of all the nation’s students.

“Poverty can’t explain away America’s lackluster academic performance,” they write. “That excuse, however soothing it may be to educators, politicians, and social critics, turns out to be a crutch that’s unfounded in evidence. We need to stop using it and start getting serious about improving the achievement of all the nation’s students.”

Read more about this topic in yesterday’s Daily Dish post: The Effects of Poverty on Student Learning.


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