Another Link: Economic Neediness and Test Scores

Oranges within Apples by Osman Azami

At 2:26 a.m. on Friday, April 9th, the Florida House of Representatives voted 64-55 to pass Senate Bill 6 to overhaul teacher compensation by eliminating tenure pay for newly hired teachers and linking half of teacher compensation to improvement in yearly standardized tests. Today, on April 15th around noon, Governor Charlie Crist thankfully vetoed the disastrous bill. Supporters argue the bill correctly aligns performance and pay and will lead to true reform and gains in education. Opponents argue that many issues were not considered in the legislation and that the relatively short 61-page bill blindly and hastily reforms education without much regard for the teaching profession. So, what were we ignoring?

Discrimination based on “preexisting conditions” —specifically the means of the students’ families—exists in public schools and plagues their effectiveness. Last year, although Immokalee students overwhelmingly took the ACT, according to the Florida Department of Education, only 10 out of 275 seniors at Immokalee High School took the SAT—a test generally required for college admission. A school can employ some of the brightest teachers but might still be powerless to improve test scores if the students worry more about eating steady meals than passing math. In the landmark Supreme Court case “Brown v. Board of Education,” over 50 years ago, Chief Justice Earl Warren declared that separate educational facilities on the basis of race are inherently unequal. Well, doesn’t the same logic apply to separate educational facilities on the basis of economic means?

The link is pretty obvious: poorer schools mean poorer academic results. Let’s just prove that first for the non-believers. In the graph below, the percentage of students in that school who qualify for free or reduced lunch in each high school in Collier and Lee County has been plotted against the high school’s average grade over the past five years (assigning a value of 95 for A, 85 for B, and so on). Since most elementary and middle schools have relatively similar grades, they were ignored for the purpose of this analysis.

The negative slope was obvious. For the most part, as the percentage of kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch increases, the test scores for that school decrease. The r^2, otherwise known as the coefficient of determination, value of .7237 is a statistical measure for determining the percentage of data that is explained by the x-value, in this case economic neediness. The number is high but not overwhelmingly, so we can correctly assume outside factors can influence the achievement differences. Additionally, the trendline is not perfectly linear. The concavity is slightly upward meaning as we progress towards less affluent schools, the effect of economic neediness on grade achievement decreases. In other words, the effect of an increase in those who qualify for free or reduced lunch on school performance is highest at more affluent schools and lessens. I’ll spare you—and myself—the pain of finding tangent lines and slopes at different parts of the curve using Calculus.

And yet, we’re not done. We can even extract more from this data. Collier County and Lee County have two fairly distinct education systems. Lee County has taken dramatic steps to equalize the schools through a very accommodating and well-utilized school choice program, extensive busing, and specialized schools. Did this have any effect? Let the numbers speak.

The differences are shocking. Collier County, for whatever reason, hasn’t really addressed economic inequities in different high schools. As a result, there is an overwhelmingly clear effect of economic means on school performance with an r^2 value of .9611 compared to Lee County’s value of .6082. The average grade for Lee County high schools is 80 (a low B letter grade) with a standard deviation (term used to describe variation of data) of 7.13 compared to Collier County high schools that average a grade of 76 (a C letter grade) with a standard deviation of 11.41. Lee County schools not only deliver a better performance overall than Collier County schools but also are far less varied.

But, in reality, sending kids of lesser means to schools in more affluent areas or vice versa isn’t really practical. It would decrease home values. Some students may not feel safe, and realtors would probably be enraged if they had to market homes in an affluent area with inferior schools. We have to ask ourselves this question: is it better to have two B schools, obviously averaging to a B, or an A and a D school, averaging to a lower B? This is mostly an ideological question. For me, the answer is obvious—the former. We are granted an unalienable right to the “pursuit of happiness,” and some of us can’t pursue happiness in an inferior school. We can certainly educate kids of lesser economic means, but it’s not easy. And, it certainly can’t be achieved with a bill that decreases resources for these schools. True, life isn’t fair, but we can work towards making it so with the same tenets of health care reform: expanding access and improving quality at the same time.

With the recent sweeping legislation that has attracted solely Republican support in the Florida Congress that Governor Charlie Crist very recently vetoed (minutes before I posted this blog), there has been considerable talk about reforming education. The massive overhaul mainly focuses on altering compensation schedules through eliminating tenure pay and linking pay to standardized test results. Unfortunately, more emphasis has been placed on punishment and reward through new compensation schedules rather than acknowledging a fundamental flaw in public education. Teaching is not like business, in which compensation and success are largely based on the bottom line performance. Quantitative results don’t always translate into achievement in education. Additionally, the bill also mandates standardized testing in ALL subjects, so all teachers will have some assessment. The bill sets aside 5% of classroom funding, estimated at $900 million, to cover the considerable expenditure for the extra testing along with extra merit pay. However, in reality, the bill is essentially unfunded and will likely lead to higher property taxes later on. The legislation even goes so far as to penalize school districts for considering length of service and degrees in determining compensation or faculty reductions. In drafting and passing the bill, lawmakers didn’t consult those who are most directly involved in education—the teachers. Lawmakers need to consider this inherent flaw. If this reform had passed, there would haven been an exodus of qualified teachers from poorer areas and maybe even Florida entirely, and this cycle would only continue and the link would strengthen.

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