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Poverty, School Grades Still Linked

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Under the state’s new accountability system, New Mexico schools with higher levels of poverty still generally received lower grades than their more affluent counterparts.

That’s true despite the state Public Education Department’s efforts to control for the effects of poverty.

State public education chief Hannah Skandera acknowledged a relationship between poverty and school grades, but she pointed to exceptions and stood by the system as a fair way to grade schools.

According to a Journal analysis, all 69 schools that received “F” grades under the new system are high-poverty, defined by the federal government as those where at least half the students qualify for lunch subsidies. Among schools that received a “D,” about 95 percent are high-poverty. Conversely, only 41 percent of the 39 schools that received “A” grades are high-poverty.

Overall, about 80 percent of New Mexico schools have high levels of poverty, according to the Journal analysis, which found the relationship between poverty and school grades by several different measures and methods.

The PED controlled for poverty in calculating A-F grades by looking at changes over time in individual student test scores, rather than raw scores at one point in time.

“One of our goals was to begin to level that playing field and begin to measure growth and improvement,” Skandera said. “Obviously, I believe we achieved that goal of finding a much better and more accurate picture, regardless of background and demographics.”

Skandera pointed to studies that show an effective teacher can make a big difference for students from all backgrounds, and that teachers vary widely in how much their students’ test scores improve from year to year.

“I think that’s a key piece to highlight that we often miss and go straight to poverty,” she said.

Peter Winograd, director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for Education Policy Research, said he is not surprised that school grades are related to income. It would be hard, he said, for even the most sophisticated school rating system to fully account for poverty.

“I don’t believe we’re ever going to come up with an accountability system that is really able to fully pull apart kids’ performance, totally untainted by socioeconomics,” said Winograd, who has researched the connections between poverty and education.

Skandera compared the A-F grading system to previous school ratings under No Child Left Behind, which did not have any demographic controls and did not give schools credit for progress over time.

She said that although poverty may track with school grades, there are striking exceptions. She pointed to examples like Anthony Elementary School in southern New Mexico, which had one of the highest school grades in the state and where nearly every student qualifies for lunch subsidies.

She also said there are other ways to look at the relationship. Specifically, Skandera said if you found the average grade among New Mexico’s 20 least-advantaged schools, and compared it to the average grade of the 20 most-advantaged schools, the difference would be just 13 grade points, out of the 105 points possible under the system. By contrast, the difference between an “A” and an “F” is 50 points.

“If grades and poverty were synonymous, the spread would be the same,” she said.

Poverty vs. achievement

Winograd has mapped the landscape of Albuquerque, and of New Mexico in general and found that academic failure, truancy, drug use and teen pregnancies are all closely related to income.

“It is very clear there is a powerful linkage between socioeconomic status and educational attainment and achievement,” Winograd said. “The big debate in this country is over why, and what you do about it.”

He said it’s important to acknowledge the relationship between poverty and achievement, and the best education reform strategies will address both in-school and out-of-school factors that impede student learning.

“It seems to me that it is important for us as a community, morally and economically, to think about how we address some of the issues that put these barriers in front of kids,” he said.

APS Superintendent Winston Brooks said he tries to address poverty by providing help to students. This year, for the first time, APS is covering the full cost of lunch for students who qualify for a reduced-cost lunch. Brooks said increasing the number of preschool programs around the district also helps ease the effects of poverty.

Brooks pointed to turnaround efforts at Emerson Elementary, where about 96 percent of students are low-income. The southeast Albuquerque school received an “F” under the state system but was dramatically redesigned this year with a new principal and some capital improvements. All the staff had to reapply, and all teachers must now be certified to teach English as a second language.

Brooks said he is confident this will lead to dramatic results at Emerson, but acknowledged that reform one school at a time is slow.

“I think we can turn around these schools. I think we can give them new hope and new energy,” Brooks said. “The problem is capacity and being able to do that in a broader way. You can make these systemic changes little by little, but how do you do it districtwide?”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal