Recent calls for a voluntary system of assessments tied to national standards have lead to both supporters and detractors of such a system. Supporters see it as a way of improving education, while some detractors see it as a federal intrusion on education, despite the fact that such a system would be developed by state and local education systems and would be voluntary. Others believe that such a system could be unfair to students who live in high poverty areas, because they might be less well prepared for the assessments. We suggest that the current education system is unfair to such students, because they and their parents are not provided with information they need to judge the quality of their education.
A prior Research Report on parental satisfaction with schools and the need for standards (November 1992) showed that, despite clear indications and widespread concern about low achievement, most parents express satisfaction with their children's achievement and schools. Part of the reason for their satisfaction is that parents have to rely primarily on grades to determine how much their children are learning--and according to the grades, their children are doing well.
In this report, we examine more closely what student grades tell us about achievement, using data collected about public school students in the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88). NELS:88, which was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, includes a wide variety of information on a sample of eighth grade students across the nation. For these analyses, we examined public school students' reports of their grades in English and math and their NELS:88 test scores in these subjects by the poverty level of their schools. The NELS:88 tests, while short--the reading test consisted of 5 short passages followed by 21 comprehension and interpretation questions, and the math test consisted of 40 items--provide comparable information for students across schools.
Eighth grade students' reports of their grades from grade 6 to the present (figure converted to text)
English Math Mostly A's 31% 32% Mostly B's 38% 35% Mostly C's 23% 23% Mostly D's 6% 7% Mostly >D's 2% 3%
Percentage of eighth grade students reporting mostly A's from grade six to the present, by school poverty level* (figure converted to text)
School poverty level* English Math 0 to 10% 34% 33% 11 to 30% 30% 32% 31 to 50% 33% 32% 51 to 75% 28% 33% 76 to 100% 23% 28%* "School poverty level" is the percentage of students in the school who receive free or reduced price lunch.
Mean test scores in reading and math, by student's grades from grade 6 to the present and by the percentage of students in the school receiving free or reduced price lunch
Grades Percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunch 0-10 11-30 31-50 51-75 76-100 English grades Reading Scores Mostly A's 56.5 55.2 52.7 49.2 46.0 +------- Mostly B's 51.7 50.2 48.7 46.2 | 44.8 +--------+ Mostly C's 47.0 46.5 45.3 | 44.1 41.3 ----------------------+ Mostly D's 45.0 44.9 44.8 41.5 38.2 Mostly >D's 44.5 42.7 41.4 39.6 37.5 Math grades Math Scores Mostly A's 57.6 55.1 52.7 49.2 45.7 +------- Mostly B's 52.9 51.2 48.7 45.0 | 43.0 +----------------+ Mostly C's 47.8 46.0 | 44.9 43.0 41.0 +-------+ Mostly D's 45.0 | 43.4 42.9 42.1 40.0 ------+ Mostly >D's 43.1 42.1 41.1 39.3 38.9SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988.
How well is an "A" student in a high poverty school doing compared to his or her counterpart in a more affluent school? These students are at a serious disadvantage, as measured by the reading and math tests given as part of the NELS:88 data collection:
The "B" students in the schools with the highest poverty concentrations received about the same test scores as the students who received D's and less than D's in the schools with the lowest concentrations of poor students. The "C" students in the poorest schools got about the same test scores as the failing students in the most affluent schools.
One can argue, of course, that the NELS:88 tests are only one small measure of student performance and that it is not fair to make sweeping generalizations about student achievement from this one test. Other studies, however, also have pointed out the problems of low achievement in high poverty schools. All of these sources, not just NELS:88, indicate the need to improve the quality of education in these schools.
One reasonable step to improve the quality of education in high poverty schools may be to provide students and parents with accurate information about how much students are learning and what additional courses they should take to be more competitive with students from more affluent areas. Without such information, students will have no way of knowing how prepared-- or unprepared--they are for further education or the work force. How fair is it for a student who has received A's and B's all through school to arrive at college and find that he or she is unprepared for college level-math courses? Wouldn't it be better to provide these students with an accurate picture of how they are doing early, so that they and their parents will know where improvements need to be made?
If your child's principal or teachers cannot answer these questions, ask them why they don't know the answers. As a parent, you have the right to know the quality of the education your child is receiving.
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (March 1990). User's Manual: National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988. Base Year: Student Component Data File User's Manual. Data Series: DR-NELS: 88-88-1.2. Washington, DC.
(2) Tables of standard errors and numbers of cases are available on request. This report was prepared by Judith Anderson, Office of Research of the U.S. Department of Education.
Richard W. Riley, Secretary of Education
Sharon P. Robinson, Assistant Secretary, OERI
Joseph P. Conaty, Acting Director, OR