Test score gaps refuse to budge, plead poverty

High-profile education “reformers” in Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago have asserted over the past decade that test-based accountability, whether for teachers (D.C. and N.Y.) or schools (Chicago) is key to student improvement. They have accused those who note the well-documented impact of poverty on academic achievement of “making excuses.”

Ten years in, what do they have to show for these resource-consuming “no excuses” initiatives? The answer seems to be very little, and maybe less than that. Recent reports on Chicago and Washington schools find little improvement in student achievement overall, with the white-black and rich-poor achievement gaps reformers promised to close actually widening in some cases. In New York, rewards for high-performing teachers proved so ineffective in raising test scores that the city abandoned them.

Michelle Rhee’s tenure as D.C. Public Schools Chancellor provides a stark example. Rhee invested $4 million in her new teacher evaluation system in 2009 and fired 1,000 educators in her 3 ½ years based heavily on test scores biased in favor of wealthier students. Current status? A stubborn achievement gap and apparently rampant cheating. In schools serving lower-income students especially, high stakes have also likely led to the substitution of real learning for test prep, to those students’ detriment. 

Two D.C. schools illustrate the strong correlation between test score disparities and the concentration of low-income students. In a January Washington Post article, Bill Turque notes that at Horace Mann Elementary School, with a 73 percent white student body and only 4 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, around 90 percent of students meet or exceed district achievement standards. Across town at Stanton Elementary School, where 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch, only 9 percent of students met or exceeded 2011 math and reading standards.

Rhee’s regime of test prep for students and tough accountability for teachers did little to narrow these gaps because it ignored the more complex and challenging issue of poverty. Ineffective teachers and principals clearly impede learning. But the variation in teacher quality is overwhelmed by the variation in social and economic conditions that promote (or limit) children’s readiness to learn. The failure of a small-carrot large-stick approach to attaining teacher “excellence” should give serious pause to the certainty of “reformers” like Michelle Rhee. It also challenges their assertions that acknowledging the effects of lack of early childhood education, excess mobility, family stress, and poor health on student outcomes amounts to “excusing” teachers. Rather, the “no excuses” crowd must stop excusing itself.


  • Jack mitchener

    Well said.  For some time I made 2 dimensional scatter graphs representing local schools (of all levels) by their reading and math scores. (reading was the horizontal scale, math the vertical scale.)  Each score for a school was expressed as a percent above or below the USA average. But first in California, and then in Colorado the state  began expressing scores in ways that are not easily comparable to those of other nations. You guys have better resources for making such comparisons. After reading Elaines’ article . . . it may be that a third dimension is needed — % Poor.  Can you create, or direct me to such an international graph?

  • Anonymous

    Might give attention to what and how children are taught in school as well as what the middle class parents are providing their children out of school, that poorer parents do not, to determine root causes of poor performance and persistent achievement gaps, rather than stopping with the conclusion the low scores are the result of poverty, that teachers and schools have no power to fix