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What Poverty Says About Student Achievement

January 23, 2013

This is an informative post by GF Brandenburg.

For anyone who has taught in schools where the poverty rate is high, the message below is one they are very familiar with.  The information is unequivocal in showing that students who come from families with high rates of poverty do not perform as well as those students who do not come from homes with high poverty rates.

It is really a very simple concept!  All the “teachers are failing our schools and our students” blather, is really just blather.  Diane Ravitch has been on a crusade to address this imbalance, but it seems none of the major news outlets, or newspapers seem to discern this simple truth.  The data do not lie.  Students whose parents struggle financially are more apt to struggle academically than those whose parents do well financially.  Thank you Mr. Brandenburg for doing the research.

Poverty Isn’t Destiny?

Quite a few Ed Deformers say that Poverty Isn’t Destiny. They say that it doesn’t matter if a child has been subjected to lead poisoning, separation from parents, violent or otherwise cruel child abuse, inadequate nutrition, and has lacked dental or health care and the love and care of a family during the first, crucial years. All it takes is for a Bright Young Thing fresh out of college to work her butt off for two years before she goes to work for a bank — and all of those handicaps will be overcome, with no extra dollars invested, and maybe even less!

Or maybe not.

Lots of teachers have been working their butts off for many decades, doing their best, believe it or not (for the most part).

Here are two three graphs from Wisconsin that show how close the connection between the poverty rates and student achievement levels, at all of their schools for which they provide data. My data come from here and are for SY 2011-2012. In fact, you can download the entire spreadsheet for the state of Wisconsin if you click on this link:

http:reportcards.dpi.wi.gov/files/reportcards/xls/2011-12reportcarddata.xlsx

In both all three graphs, the percentage of students at the schools is along the horizontal (X) axis. In the first two, the average achievement score at the school is along the vertical (Y) axis.

In this first graph, Wisconsin uses a 100-point scale for overall student achievement.

wisconsin school overall student ach score by pct of poor kids

That is an incredibly strong correlation between poverty levels and student achievement. The fewer the proportion of poor students at a school, the better the achievement scores at that school.

I had Excel compute two correlation “trend” lines – one straight, in black, and one curved, in red following a third-degree polynomial, since it looks like we have a serious “Matthew effect” going on here. In either case, the R-squared and R values are very elevated, showing that, in fact, poverty is in fact destiny for a lot of kids.

The next graph is for reading only, but it shows essentially the same trend. School reading scores go from 0 to 50.

Wisconsin school READING scores by pct of poor kids

There are very few real-life correlations between two entities stronger than what you see in these two graphs.

This next graph is a little different, for two reasons: the y-axis is math, and it’s the percent of students deemed ‘proficient’ on whatever test Wisconsin is using. It also shows a very strong correlation.

wisconsin school poverty rate versus percent of students proficient in MATH

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