The good news: over the last 40 years, the achievement gap between black and white students has narrowed substantially.
The bad news: the gap based on family income has widened, and socioeconomic status is now the best predictor of academic achievement.
“Schools and school districts that serve lots of high-income students have much higher average test scores than schools that serve lots of low income students,” said Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University.
He looked at 50 years of data from a dozen large studies, and though the gaps have always been big, “They’ve grown by about 40 percent, if you compare kids born in, say, the mid-1970s to kids born in the mid-1990s.”
According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, in Pennsylvania, fourth graders from middle and upper class families are more than twice as likely to score advanced or proficient on standardized reading tests.
Reardon said the reason is not because poor kids are performing worse, but because rich kids are performing so much better. He wrote in 2011 that, metaphorically, “A dollar of income appears to buy more academic achievement than it did several decades ago.”
“So it’s not that the poor are doing less, the poor are doing more than they used to, but the rich are doing much more than they used to,” Reardon said.
Among Pittsburgh Public Schools, the pattern holds up. On last year’s Keystone and PSSA exams, generally speaking, schools with a higher percentage of students considered by the district to be “economically disadvantaged” had lower scores. Schools with fewer disadvantaged kids had higher scores.
There were exceptions: a few schools, where more than three-quarters of the children come from disadvantaged backgrounds and yet, students were beating the district, and sometimes even the state, averages on standardized tests.
One of those schools slowly emerging as an exception to the rule is Sunnyside Elementary, a pre-K through 8 school in Stanton Heights.
Since Principal Laura Dadey took the helm in 2003, students at Sunnyside have gradually improved their test scores.
It’s hard to make a direct comparison between the scores of 2003 and those of today, because the state has changed which grades are tested and how. Since 2006, overall scores at Sunnyside have improved in both English language arts and math, and the greatest gains have been seen by students considered economically disadvantaged.
But the story is actually more nuanced than that. Scores took a bit of a dive in 2007, the second year every student from third through eighth grade was tested.
“I just kept thinking, oh my gosh, what are we doing wrong? Why aren’t our test scores high?” Dadey said. “I said to the teachers, ‘Look, here it is. I’m sweating, you’re sweating, the students aren’t sweating. They need to sweat. We need to get them to sweat a little bit as well.’”
So teachers started making students keenly aware of their academic achievement. And not just in terms of the big picture of annual test results, but with individual assignments and minor milestones, such as spelling tests or how quickly they can read.
“They need to understand this is what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” Dadey said. “They need to buy into it. So they all track their own data. They track their achievement. They know what their fluency levels are.”
She said it’s working. When kids take ownership over their data, they feel empowered. They can see the difference that practice has on performance. One teacher likened it to athletes being able to track their stats. And like athletes, these kids are sweating too.
In part two of our three-part series profiling Sunnyside Elementary, we’ll hear from students and teachers about the impact that tracking data has had on achievement.