Indiana

Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

How Poverty Impacts Indiana’s Performance On National & International Tests

An after-school snack sits on a table waiting for students an East Chicago community center classroom. It's part of the "Hope Project," an after-school  "nutrition and academic support program" a local food bank offers to students who qualify for government help paying for their meals in school.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

An after-school snack sits on a table waiting for students an East Chicago community center classroom. It's part of the "Hope Project," an after-school "nutrition and academic support program" a local food bank offers to students who qualify for government help paying for their meals in school.

Jalea’s pencil hammers loudly on the desk as she writes, speeding through a worksheet of multiplication problems as light drizzle falls outside an East Chicago community center on a dreary Thursday afternoon.

“This is easy,” the fourth grader sighs as her tutor hands her another sheet.

But Jalea isn’t only here for after-school homework help. She’ll leave here with enough food for the weekend.

Like nearly 95 percent of the kids in East Chicago, Jalea gets government help paying for her meals at school. That qualifies her for the local food bank’s new after-school tutoring program, which also provides a grocery sack full of enough ready-to-eat meals to last her until Monday.

“If you’re worried about, ‘I don’t know where my next meal’s going to come from,’ obviously that’s something you’re going to worry about more than doing your homework,” says Megan Sikes of the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana, which offers the program.

Where Poverty & Test Results Intersect

Meeting the most basic needs of low-income students can make the results of recently-released national and international test scores feel distant. But education experts say the difference between low-income and middle-class students explains a great deal of the data.

Fourth grader Jalea talks with her tutor, Helen Dalton, at an after-school tutoring program put on by a local food bank in East Chicago.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Fourth grader Jalea talks with her tutor, Helen Dalton, at an after-school tutoring program put on by a local food bank in East Chicago.

Last week, federal officials released the results of national benchmark exams comparing Indiana students’ academic performance with their peers across the country. Hoosier students made “significant improvements.”

Similar international tests show Indiana students’ performance on math and science tests are above the worldwide average. In fact, they’re on par with students in Finland, a country some hold up as a model.

But the encouraging results come paired with fresh evidence that the difference between low-income students’ performance on tests compared to their more-affluent peers isn’t getting any smaller, despite massive state and federal efforts to close this “achievement gap.”

The problem goes beyond East Chicago. 350,000 Indiana children live in poverty — 120,000 more than a decade ago. The national child poverty rate is higher than all but five countries in the developed world. That shows when education experts compare test scores worldwide.

“Part of the reason [the United States] is in the middle of the pack,” says Indiana University professor David Rutkowski, who studies international test scores, “is because we are such a large and diverse country that no matter what happens, we’re going to be in the middle of the pack.”

Life In the Achievement Gap

International test scores reflect averages, but to see the extremes, break down the scores by state. States with larger populations of low-income students are less likely to compare favorably to their international peers. Students in Alabama, for example, could do better in some schools in Armenia or Kazakhstan.

The Southern Education Foundation’s Steve Suitts says the gap between schools in places like East Chicago and top-performing districts is the critical problem facing American education.

“The upper-class students in the U.S. can compete with anyone in the world,” says Suitts. “What we have is, in fact, a system that is not serving low-income students well.”

The reasons schools don’t serve poor students well are complicated, says Marcus Robinson.

Robinson’s the CEO of EdPower, a non-profit charter school operator that also runs one of the Indianapolis high schools the state took over last year. He says schools can’t change a student’s substandard home life, but they can make sure poverty plays as small a role as possible once students arrive in the building.

“Schools can have a mitigating impact,” Robinson says. “I just don’t think that schools view it as their responsibility to have a mitigating impact. We spend money on other things,” such as focusing on teachers’ concerns more than students’ needs.

But Robinson says leaving society’s ills at the schoolhouse door isn’t the solution.

How To Interpret International Test Results

Rutkowski says, while national and international test scores show persistent achievement gaps, that shouldn’t override the key takeaway — Indiana schools are, on the whole, doing pretty well.

“We have an educational system that has failed many students in this state. We can’t forget that that happened. But we also shouldn’t say that it’s a failing school system,” Rutkowski says, “Indiana obviously doesn’t have a failing school system.”

Rutkowski says that message is often lost as policymakers push for systemic reform.

“We’re doing great. It’s not that there aren’t schools that could improve; for sure there are. But evidence suggests that Indiana isn’t in dire need of a massive overhaul,” says Leslie Rutkowski, an Indiana University education professor who, like her husband, studies international test scores.

Setting big goals for all schools, though, says Achieve senior fellow Cory Curl, is key to driving improvement in education. She tells StateImpact:

The intent of setting goals and making sure that all the work you’re doing is aiming toward those goals is not to have people feel terrible about where they are now. It’s a way to focus improvement and ensure that the state is on a trajectory toward some really meaningful outcomes. I’m sure in Indiana, as in many other states, there are students who are doing really very well and graduating from high school prepared absolutely for everything that comes next. But that’s not true for all students. Ensuring that level of preparation and the opportunities are available for all students in order to lift the entire state as a whole is also absolutely crucial.

Comments

  • Karynb9

    I would be interested in some specifics as to how Marcus Robinson makes sure schools have a “mitigating impact” on poverty as well as examples from him on how schools spend money on “teacher concerns” that are NOT student needs. I really can’t think of cases where resources in ANY schools are directed to teacher concerns that don’t also meet student needs. Trust me — I’ve searched far-and-wide across this great state to find the public school that pays for weekly massages for teachers and has a free Coke machine in the lounge, but I have yet to find it (must be in that mythical school corporation Mitch Daniels always used to talk about that included the color of the walls in the teachers’ lounge in their collective bargaining agreements).

    I find it offensive that he apparently believes there are large numbers of teachers out there working with low-income students who are demanding resources for personal needs without regard to meeting the needs of students, especially if he’s unwilling to give specific examples of that currently happening.

    • kystokes

      If this week had gone differently — i.e. less time running around the Statehouse on Wednesday! — I would’ve hoped to put a full Q&A from his interview up. So, to your “interest in specifics,” I think I can oblige with something more next week. He offers a compelling perspective that doesn’t work well as soundbites.

      I should add that he says he’s “not anti-teacher, I love teaching.” But he did say the system of education lacks a “client-focus,” aka a student focus.

      • Karynb9

        Thanks. And a follow-up question (look at me, all journalizing-the-journalist!)…

        Indiana public schools are required to post administrative contracts, including salaries and benefits, as public information on their websites. Are charter schools (which ARE “public schools” as their supporters are all happy to remind us during public vs. private discussions) included in that law? And, if so, where could I find out how much of a salary Marcus Robinson and his administrative team members take as a part of this “non-profit charter operator” group that is supposedly putting all available resources into helping their students who live in poverty?

  • inteach

    “But the encouraging results come paired with fresh evidence that the
    difference between low-income students’ performance on tests compared to
    their more-affluent peers isn’t getting any smaller, despite massive
    state and federal efforts to close this “achievement gap.”

    Not accurate. Schools have had a mitigating effect, despite Robinson’s rhetoric.

    “Achievement gaps for black and Hispanic youths have declined by
    substantial margins in reading and math since the early 1970s, according
    to new federal data issued Thursday. The gaps with their white peers,
    while still in evidence, have narrowed across all three age levels
    tested as part of a national assessment of long-term trends that offers a
    look at test data spanning some 40 years.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/academic-achievement-gap-is-narrowing-new-national-data-show/2013/06/27/6c47b764-debd-11e2-963a-72d740e88c12_story.html

    • kystokes

      I appreciate your points, and you’re right to say that there has been some narrowing of the Hispanic gaps, but I’m standing by the characterization.

      Check out Indiana’s score gaps:
      http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2013/#/state-gaps

      On the state level, again, you’re right to point out the gap between Hispanic and White students has narrowed. Compared with where Black students’ scores were in 1998, White students’ scores remain about the same distance ahead.

      The national numbers are even more illustrative. In statistical terms, the gaps are not significantly smaller (the way I read the chart’s annotation):
      http://nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2013/#/achievement-gaps

      • inteach

        Thanks for the reply, but I still see a positive trend nationally according to NAEP results since the 1970′s.

        Reading

        9 year olds:

        The Black-White achievement gap narrowed from 44 points in 1971 to 23 points in 2012.

        Black students increased there scores 36 points over this time period, while White students improved their scores 15 points.

        The Hispanic-White achievement gap narrowed from 34 points in 1975
        (the first year for which data was available for Hispanic students) to
        21 points in 2012.

        Hispanic students increased their scores 25 points from 1975 to
        2012, while White students nudged up 12 points in the same time period.

        13 year olds:

        The Black-White achievement gap diminished from 39 points (1971) to 23 points (2012).

        Black students increased their scores by 25 points (roughly 2.5
        years of learning), while White students achieved a 9-point gain over
        this time.

        The Hispanic-White achievement gap narrowed from 30 points in 1975 to 21 points in 2012.

        Hispanic students increased their scores by 17 points from 1975 to
        2012, while White students achieved an 8-point gain over this time.

        For 17 year olds:

        The Black-White achievement gap narrowed by 27 points (from a 53 to a 26 point gap) between 1971 and 2012.

        Black students increased their scores by 30 points (roughly 3 years
        of growth) since 1971, while White students saw a 4-point improvement.

        Black students also showed short-term growth (from 2008) with a
        3-point increase, while White students’ average reading scores remained
        constant.

        The Hispanic-White achievement gap narrowed by 20 points (41 to 21
        point gap) from 1975 to 2012, while Hispanic enrollment was rapidly
        expanding.

        Hispanic students increased their scores by 22 points from 1975 to
        2012, while White students saw only a 2-point gain in the same time
        period.

        Math:

        9 year olds:

        The Black-White achievement gap narrowed from 35 points in 1973 to 25 points in 2012.

        Black students increased there scores by 36 points while at the same time White students improved their scores by 27 points.

        The Hispanic-White achievement gap narrowed from 23 points in 1973
        to 17 points in 2012 while the Hispanic enrollment increased from 5
        percent in 1978 to 26 percent in 2012.

        Hispanic students increased there scores by 32 points from 1973 to 2012.

        13 year olds:

        The Black-White achievement gap narrowed by 18 points (46 to 28 point gap).

        Black students increased there scores 36 points while at the same time White students improved their scores 19 points.

        The Hispanic-White achievement gap narrowed by 14 points (35 to 21
        point gap), while the Hispanic enrollment increased from 6 percent in
        1978 to 21 percent in 2012.

        Hispanic students increased their scores by 32 points from 1973 to 2012.
        17 year olds:

        The Black-White achievement gap narrowed by 14 points (40 to 26 point gap) between 1973 and 2012.

        Black students increased their scores 18 points while at the same time White students improved their scores 4 points.
        .

        The Hispanic-White achievement gap narrowed 14 points (33 to 19
        point gap) while the Hispanic enrollment increased from 4 percent in
        1978 to 22 percent in 2012.

        Hispanic students increased their scores by 17 points from 1973 to 2012.

        Source: Center for Public Education

        I not saying the achievement gap is not a problem.

        However, significant progress has been made despite persistent segregation, racism, and huge disparities in income, health care and access to quality Pre-K education.

        Public schools have done a great job mitigating the achievement gap, but there is still work to be done.

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