The academic achievement gap in D.C. might be much wider than we think

A fascinating article by Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, politics, and economics at the University of Michigan, appeared in the New York Times Business Section last Sunday that made the case that the academic achievement gap in this country is actually much wider than has been estimated.  Here is the basis of her argument:

“Nearly half of students nationwide are eligible for a subsidized meal in school. Children whose families earn less than 185 percent of the poverty threshold are eligible for a reduced-price lunch, while those below 130 percent get a free lunch. For a family of four, the cutoffs are $32,000 for a free lunch and $45,000 for a reduced-price one. By way of comparison, median household income in the United States was about $54,000 in 2014.”

The author’s point is that when the public school academic achievement gap between the affluent and poor is measured in this country, the classification for children as low-income is made when they come from families qualifying for free or reduced lunch.  But in the preceding paragraph Ms. Dynarski illustrates that the cutoff for the definition of poverty is not far from the median household income level.  She takes her assertion further:

“In Michigan, as in the rest of the country, about half of eighth graders in public schools receive a free or reduced-price lunch. But when we look more closely, we see that just 14 percent have been eligible for subsidized meals every year since kindergarten. These children are the poorest of the poor — the persistently disadvantaged.”

Professor Dynarski’s conclusion:  “The achievement gap between persistently disadvantaged children and those who were never disadvantaged is about a third larger than the gap that is typically measured.”

This statistic has practical results when it comes to the classroom.  When Ms. Dynarski looked at the differences in academic standing for eighth graders in math she found a two-year deficit for those qualifying for free or reduced meals but a three-year difference for the chronically disadvantaged.  In addition, this gap did not first manifest itself when the students made it to the eighth grade.  Ms. Dynarski determined that for persistently poor kids the knowledge variance was there in the third grade.  Moreover, when it comes to these pupils, living in poverty can be traced back to the time that they were in kindergarten.

Here in the nation’s capital, last year’s first administration of the PARCC assessment clearly demonstrated the city’s stubborn and highly disturbing academic achievement gap. In English language arts the variance between white and economically disadvantaged students was 79 percent and 14 percent, respectively, in the college readiness score of four and above.  That is a difference of 65 points with charter schools scoring only slightly better than DCPS.  For math the achievement gap is slightly lower with white students at 70 percent in level four and above and poor pupils at 15 percent for a span of 55 points, with charters results again somewhat narrower.

However, if we are to believe the thesis of Professor Dynarski, the real variation between these results is a third higher for the chronically disadvantaged.  These academic achievement gaps would then grow to a shocking 86.7 percent in English and 73.3 percent in math.

Why is this important?  Ms. Dynarski opines that “many federal, state and local programs distribute money based on the share of a district’s students who are eligible for subsidized meals. But schools that have identical shares of students eligible for subsidized meals may differ vastly in the share of students who are deeply poor. The schools with the most disadvantaged children have greater challenges and arguably need more resources.”

What all this means in Washington, D.C. after 20 years of hard-fought public school reform is impossible to say.

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