Even though disadvantaged students in poorer school districts might earn lower test scores than those in wealthier districts, students in both settings are learning just as much, according to a new study from researchers at Ohio State University.
The research challenges the traditional notions that performance gaps between such districts are a product of the schools themselves, researchers said. “What our results suggest is that that story is probably not accurate,” said Dr. Doug Downey, a sociology professor at Ohio State University and lead author of the study. Discrepancies in test scores between wealthy or poor districts speak more to what happens outside the classroom, he said.
“It’s probably more accurate to say, there are large gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged kids at the start of kindergarten, but once they get to school, those gaps largely stop growing,” Downey said.
The study used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, pulling from a subsample of about 3,000 students from around the country. Children in the cohort examined by researchers took reading tests at the beginning and end of kindergarten and near the end of first and second grade. Researchers calculated how much children learned during the three periods of school and compared that to what happened during summer breaks.
The results showed that children in schools that serve disadvantaged students on average saw their reading scores rise about as much during the school year as the scores in more advantaged schools.
Downey hopes the research can be helpful for policymakers thinking about how to evaluate schools, and determine whether schools labeled as failing truly are. “If we’re interested in reducing achievement gaps among advantaged and disadvantaged kids, we’re going to need to think bigger than school reform,” he said.
Those conclusions are in line with the work of the nonprofit group Communities in Schools, said Amy Gordon, its executive director and CEO. The group provides services in more than two dozen central Ohio schools to address barriers outside of the classroom that can impact learning, such as hunger, unstable housing, lack of basic resources, and prevalence of violence.
“The issue is not at all the students or the schools’ capacity to teach or to learn,” she said. “There is no doubt about the fact that ability and capacity is there. It really does come down to the impact of the
nonacademic barriers that kids are facing.”
For more about the study, its social and educational implications and the full report, click here.