High-poverty K12 schools show high growth

By: | Issue: January, 2019
December 19, 2018


Here’s a scenario that frustrates many educators: An economically disadvantaged student—or a child who doesn’t speak English—starts elementary school two or three grades behind. Teachers bring that student up by a grade level or more by the end of the year, yet state and federal accountability standards penalize the district if the student hasn’t reached full proficiency.

“State assessments measure the effect of poverty as opposed to the value added by the teacher, the school and the learning environment,” says Emmanuel Caulk, superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools in Kentucky. “Schools that serve students in collective poverty can show growth above the national norm, which means they’re growing faster than their peers. They should be rewarded for that.”

Caulk’s district participated in a recently released study, “Evaluating the Relationships Between Poverty and School Performance,” which focused on reading and math scores in 1,500 public schools. Conducted by NWEA, the assessment company, the report finds that high poverty—while linked to low achievement—does not generally equate to low growth. The report also warns that schools that produce substantial growth, but fall short on achievement measures, risk losing out on funding or may face other punishment.

Though ESSA has now replaced it, No Child Left Behind—and its hyperfocus on testing and achievement—is a major culprit, says Andy Hegedus, the NWEA research consulting director who conducted the study.

“The use of achievement biases these evaluations against schools that serve kids from high poverty,” Hegedus says. “We should be pushing that balance more toward growth.”

Finding models

Achievement remains an important measurement in gauging whether students are on track for graduation and college, particularly in affluent schools where high achievers don’t show much growth, Hegedus says. But the NWEA study urges lawmakers, school boards and district administrators to provide sufficient resources to low-performing schools that produce substantial academic growth. “It would be a shame if we have low-achieving schools doing great things for kids, growing kids by tremendous amounts, and to have those schools be the ones that are being restructured with personnel changes,” Hegedus says.

Caulk, in Fayette County, says educators in high-poverty, high-growth schools—which often serve students who have experienced varying degrees of trauma—should become national models. “When you find those schools serving high concentrations of children in poverty, and you find great teachers and great leaders and great instructional practices, then those schools should be highlighted so that other schools can learn from those best practices,” says Caulk.