A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Day 12

This is the 12th of 20 posts I will be writing during the PARCC testing window of March 9 – April 10.  If you’re interested in the growing master list of reasons we opted out of standardized tests in 2015, you can find it here.

Reason 12: Ignoring Poverty

Today I want to address how standardized tests are used to distract you from the #1 problem facing our nation’s public schools – childhood poverty.   The simple fact is that children who live in poverty do not fare as well in school as children who do not.  This problem is worrisome enough, especially considering that those in charge of our nation’s schools refuse to accept that low test scores are a symptom of poverty and not a cause.

My argument for opting out today is a bit easier to understand after you read my last couple of posts about how test scores have improved over the past forty years despite all the complaining you hear to the contrary, and how the achievement gap between white and non-white students has narrowed though you won’t hear much about these successes in the media or from education reformers.  The bottom line is that scores on the NAEP are going up and non-white students are catching up to white students.  But there’s one group of students that are not catching up – those who live in poverty.  The “achievement gap” between students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (free or reduced lunch) has remained stubbornly stagnant over the last couple of decades.  Here’s a graph:
Chart1
For 8th grade students, the “achievement gap” between NSLP and non-NSLP students has stayed exactly the same in Math and Reading since 1996, while 4th grade students who live in poverty have managed to only gain 2 points on their more fortunate peers in that same time span.

At this point you might be thinking “Well, it’s pretty clear that our public school teachers are failing students who live in poverty”.   And why wouldn’t you?  That’s what you’ve been told for years.  Well guess what?  You would be WRONG.  You know I’m not a big fan of using test scores as a measure of “success” but even by this limited measure, we can see that students who are eligible for NSLP are improving on the NAEP at almost the exact same rate as students who do not live in poverty.  Chart!

chart5
Improvement in NAEP test scores for NSLP and Non-NSLP students since 1996

And just in case you’re a more “visual” learner, here’s a graph of the 4th grade Math scores, the other tests look pretty much the same.
chart2
Those lines are seriously similar.  So what have we learned?  If you come to the same conclusion that I come to after looking at these charts and graphs (as well as a mountain of research) then you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute.  There must be something else going on.  NAEP test scores are going up for all groups of students, the achievement gap is closing between white and non-white students, but the gap between students who live in poverty and those who don’t is almost exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.”

If that’s what you were thinking then you’re definitely on the right track, and you’re on the cusp of the answer.  Just in case you need me to push you over the top, then here’s your nudge:  POVERTY IS A CAUSE, NOT A SYMPTOM OF LOWER TEST SCORES.  Teachers cannot change the circumstances of their students, as much as we desperately wish we could.  Those students who live in poverty are at a disadvantage – one that cannot be solved by teachers alone.

But that’s not all.  If you look at the change in socioeconomic status of our students over the past twenty years you’ll see that the percentage of students who live in poverty is steadily on the rise.
chart 3
That’s right, the majority of our students are now eligible for free and reduced lunch.  If you remember my discussion of Simpson’s paradox then you know that American students’ scores look flat because a higher proportion of them are now living in poverty.  This makes for a perfect distraction.  Convince the American public that scores are lower because teachers are failing while conveniently blocking their view of the real problems in our society.

And that’s why we consider this a reason to opt our children out of standardized tests.  Until we address childhood poverty as a society, these inequities will continue to be exacerbated.  And as long as test scores are being manipulated to distract the American people from looking at the root causes of inequity in our schools by casting blame on our public school teachers, then our children will not be a part of it.  It’s  a travesty, morally repugnant, and we will not stand for it.