Assessing Student Growth: Findings on Poverty and School Performance

A new report, published last month by NWEA, challenges conventional wisdom around measures of school performance by looking at it through a lens of academic growth. The report, Evaluating the Relationships between Poverty and School Performance, suggests that absolute achievement alone—based on state test scores–is insufficient for evaluating what and how much students are learning, especially when it comes to high-poverty communities.

Here are key findings, conclusions, and recommendations from the report:

High Poverty = Lower Achievement

There is a very strong relationship between high-poverty schools and low student achievement. This is not news, but it bears repeating. State test scores are generally going to be significantly higher in schools filled with affluent students than in schools that serve high concentrations of students in poverty.

High Poverty ≠ Lower Growth

There is a much weaker relationship between high-poverty schools and low student academic growth. Looking beyond state test scores, NWEA finds many high-poverty schools that are producing tremendous academic growth for students. The report found:

The difference in median student growth between the schools at either end of the [Free or Reduced Price Lunch] continuum is about 4 percentile points, meaning student growth is minimally associated with the level of poverty in a school. This suggests that growth provides a measure of learning that is less biased by the income of the population that a school serves.

What are Accountability Systems Measuring?: Accountability systems that heavily weight achievement fail to adequately recognize schools that are producing excellent growth. Many schools demonstrating strong academic growth are still being flagged in accountability systems because their state test scores are relatively low.

What are States Measuring?

There are many state accountability systems that still look solely at absolute achievement. In a blog about the report in Ed Excellence’s Flypaper Blog, Neerav Kingsland writes that only 18 states weighted growth for at least 50 percent of the total accountability score, with another twenty-three states weighting growth at least at 33 percent.

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