Monday, September 11, 2017

To Understand Pima County Test Scores, Follow the [Parents'] Money

Posted By on Mon, Sep 11, 2017 at 10:32 AM

The Star's front page story about Pima county school districts' scores on the AzMERIT test has its facts right, but it doesn't include all the relevant information. As a result, readers are likely to draw the wrong conclusions—that TUSD and Sunnyside are doing a terrible job educating their students, while Pima county's suburban districts are shining stars in Arizona's educational firmament.

Hank Stephenson, the new education reporter at the Star, is a good journalist who does the necessary leg work and phone work to get the story—far, far more of it than I do as a humble blogger—but with this article, he's earned a spot at the top of the front page by telling only part of the story, which does a serious disservice to our two districts with the lowest income students. Unintentionally, I believe, Stephenson has followed one of the Star's unwritten maxims: If TUSD bleeds, the story leads. So let it bleed.

TUSD must be doing a terrible job educating its students, or so the story makes it sound.
Southern Arizona’s largest school district is dragging down the county’s results. Students in the Tucson Unified School District performed well below the state average on the standardized test and were also outperformed by students in eight of Pima County’s nine major school districts.
Sunnyside must be doing even worse, according to the story.
The test results were even worse for Sunnyside Unified School District, which scored the lowest of any of Pima County’s nine major districts.

The article paints the two districts as lead weights pulling down the county averages and has them shame-facedly admitting that they have to do better. If you read the article closely, you'll notice a short aside, a statement from the Sunnyside spokesman giving a possible explanation for his district's low scores, but you have to be looking for it.
[Victor Mercado] noted that Sunnyside faces external factors that make it hard to compete with other districts — it’s one of the poorer districts in Pima County and has a large number of English language learners.
Hmm. Could poverty have anything to do with low scores in Sunnyside and TUSD and help explain why their passing rates are less than half what you find at Catalina Foothills? You wouldn't think that's a relevant bit of information from the overall thrust of the article, but if you look at the vast majority of educational studies on the subject in the U.S. and around the world, you'll find a consensus that test scores are directly related to parental income. So maybe it makes sense that students in high rent districts have overall better AzMERIT scores than students in TUSD and Sunnyside. Maybe it makes sense to include some socioeconomic data in the article.

In fact, the correlation between AzMERIT passing rates and parental income is clear in Pima County's school districts. Here is a table with the approximate percentage of students on free or reduced lunch in the nine districts, listed from low to high, and their AzMERIT scores in Language Arts and Math.
The overall correlation between F/R lunch rates and AzMERIT passing rates is unmistakable. The trend is, when the percentage of students who qualify for the lunch program is lower, the AzMERIT passing rate is higher. Flowing Wells, as usual, is a happy, surprising exception to the general rule. It outperforms TUSD even though it has more students on F/R lunch. But even the exception helps prove the rule. Flowing Wells is held up as a district that defies the odds with its standardized test scores, but its laudable educational efforts only boost it one slot, from eighth to seventh place in the county's AzMERIT scores. It might be doing twice the job of Catalina Foothills educating its kids given the challenges its students face due to their socioeconomic status, but it still has half as many students passing the test. (Tanque Verde scores a bit lower than you might expect, but it's a smaller district than the other eight, so it's hard to know what its scores mean.)

This isn't an excuse for TUSD and Sunnyside. It's an explanation of the correlation between income and educational achievement. I'm not saying the two districts are doing great and they should stay the course. Both of them should make every effort to improve student achievement. But it's not helpful—worse, it's harmful—to compare their test results with the high rent districts surrounding the Tucson core without making the relevant socioeconomic comparisons.

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