Poor students often start third grade testing at first and second-grade levels, while those from wealthy districts are sometimes one or two grade levels ahead. By eighth grade, there is still typically a gap between rich and poor districts, but students at both learn at roughly the same pace. Researchers at Stanford University found they both progress about five grade levels in five years. (click to enlarge)
Across Michigan, school districts face daunting challenges, educating students from families with high poverty and few college degrees. Conventional wisdom says the schools fail.
But groundbreaking new research challenges that belief, showing that – in many cases – students in poor districts can learn and progress at the same rate as peers in wealthy districts.
It’s a unique way to measure school effectiveness, and Bridge Magazine is using the work to name its 2018 Academic State Champs. In years past, Bridge lauded schools for over-achieving – doing better than poverty rates would predict.
Now, champs are honored for how much their students progress from third to eighth grade, using Stanford University’s analysis of more than 500 public school districts in Michigan. The research was part of a national study of millions of students that measured academic performance and a host of socioeconomic data, from income and family structure to income and family education.
“There are many relatively high-poverty school districts where students appear to be learning at a faster rate than kids in other, less poor districts,” said Sean Reardon, a Stanford University researcher who headed the study.
“Poverty clearly does not determine the quality of a school system.”
To be sure, wealthy districts across Michigan tend to have higher test scores than even the most succesful poor districts, in large part because their students start out so far ahead.
But the Stanford research shows that good districts can help accelerate learning, regardless of income. Statewide, students in 40 school districts tested below grade level in third grade but were at or above grade level by eighth, including districts as dissimilar as Athens near Battle Creek and Cheboygan at the tip of the northern Lower Peninsula.
The median income in Athens ($71,000) is nearly twice that of Cheboygan ($37,300). According to Stanford’s research, students in both districts tested below grade level in third grade, but were at (Cheboygan) or above (Athens) grade level by eighth grade.
“We’re in the process of making even bigger gains,” said Troy Reehl, superintendent of Cheboygan schools.
The secret? In recent years, the district has relied on data to identify students who need extra help, and adopted a united approach to instruction rather than have teachers work independently, Reehl said.
Poverty and learning
In Michigan, as elsewhere, poverty has been a reliable predictor of academic success.
Districts with poor students typically test below average, while wealthy districts are almost always above average. That’s because poor kids start out behind, typically testing below grade level at third grade, Reardon said.
Most rankings of schools only look at test scores or "proficiency." What makes Stanford's analysis so interesting is that it measured student growth.
Statewide, 27 districts in Michigan tested below grade level as third graders but were above it by eighth grade, the research found. And there were four dozen districts where the opposite was true: the third graders were ahead of grade level but had fallen behind by eighth grade.
“Poverty is not destiny and schools don’t exacerbate the (problems) that poverty brings,” said Sarah Lenhoff, as assistant professor at Wayne State University’s College of Education who has studied the impact of school choice. “When you look at growth like this over time you’re able to make a better assessment of what’s going on.”
Statewide, students grow exactly as one would expect: Five grade levels in five years from third to eighth grade, according to the Stanford data.
Many wealthy districts start and finish high. Students in seven districts tested at the 10th grade level by the end of middle school, but most were testing at fifth grade levels in third grade, according to the research.
Two students at the Madison schools work together. The Lenawee County district houses all students, from kindergarten to 12th grade, in one building. (Courtesy of Madison schools)
Other wealthy districts, though, may be “losing their advantage” because they started at above grade level but didn’t finish as far ahead by eighth grade, Lenhoff said.
“That suggests that they are not doing everything they can to boost achievement,” Lenhoff said.
The Stanford research doesn’t include charter schools. And because Michigan switched standardized tests during the time frame studied (2009-2015), districts in the state can’t be compared to others in the nation.
The state has used growth as a component of its state rankings and district assessments but proficiency (test scores) plays a larger role. The state recently launched its own new “dashboard” of school achievement that allows for comparisons with other districts that have similar demographics.
“Parents told us they would like comparison data,” said Jan Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Education.
Waste no time
Just east of Adrian in the south-central part of Michigan, Ryan Rowe is familiar with the challenges of poverty.
As superintendent of the Madison schools of Lenawee County, he leads a district in which a fifth of families live in poverty, fewer than 1 in 10 parents have a college degree (statewide it’s 28.3 percent), and the median household income was $35,577 – just two-thirds as the state median.
High schools students in the Madison schools fight it out during a tug-of-war battle. The small Lenawee County district is among the best in the state in terms of student growth. (Courtesy of Madison schools)
Despite the hurdles, Rowe’s district saw its third graders rise from testing a half-grade below average to a half-grade above by third grade – a remarkable pace Rowe attributes to maximizing their time with students.
“We don’t waste a half hour,” he said.
He said Madison, where all 1,600 students, from kindergarten to 12th grade, are under the same roof, uses a team approach where literacy is a priority, along with rigor, innovation and personal attention.
The district draws roughly half of its students from neighboring districts through the state’s schools of choice program, Rowe said.
The district uses data to make sure the tools teachers employ work, while allowing students to move forward at their pace. Being in one building allows students to progress with their peers even if they’re taking individual classes ahead or behind their classmates.
The results have been apparent in the district and beyond. In previous years, it’s been named an Academic State Champ by Bridge, and is so popular among schools of choice students, there are no more spots available.
Rowe gives all credit to his staff and the community.
“It’s a lot of work,” Rowe said.
Find your school district
See how students in your district performed from third to eighth grade. Use the ‘search’ box to find your district. You’ll see at what grade level students were, on average, testing at third and eighth grade, and the overall grade levels they gained. To see how the district compares to neighboring districts, click on the school’s name. To see all districts in a particular county, type that county’s name in the search box.