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`Does Poverty Affect Standardized Testing?`

Research conducted in various states of the country show that poverty directly affects student performance in the negative. Research also showed that the size of the school played an important role in the achievement of students coming from less affluent societies. The smaller the school size the less the harmful effects of poverty on the academic achievement of the child, this being measured by the state sanctioned standardized tests.

In the states of Ohio, Georgia, Montana and Texas, the Rural School and Community Trust, which is a national non-profitable organization has undertaken the responsibility of strengthening the relationship between the schools and the communities they take care off.

In each school of these states they measured the academic achievement levels of students of various grades keeping in mind the poverty level in the district and school, the size of enrolment in the school and the interaction between these two factors. Two kinds of effects were looked into. The first, ‘The excellence effect’ and second ‘The equity effect’. The size of the school is of paramount importance. How does the size of the school influence the students’ performance depending upon the level of poverty? Do students from the less well to do families score more in smaller or larger schools? It was seen that achievement score differed as school size changed in different levels of poverty.

The poverty level in the schools was measured by the percent of students in the school district who live in families receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and the school size was measured as the average number of students per school grade.

The Research produced the result that in the less affluent communities the students scored better in smaller schools. In Ohio it was seen that at all grade levels smaller school’s in smaller districts produced higher achievements in poorer communities whereas larger schools and districts produced higher achievements in wealthier communities. This interaction between school size and poverty affects the academic achievement in rural and small town schools for school size alone does not play a vital role on their achievement; it strongly depends on the poverty level of the community. It is seen in urban areas that larger schools are associated with the poor performance of students hailing from all levels of community income.

It was noted in Ohio that poverty’s power was lower in schools that were smaller than those which were larger. The smaller schools had an overall better achievement results.

Thus certain observations made were that the poorer the community served the smaller the school should be in order to achieve maximum academic achievement as measured by standardized tests, as poverty cannot dampen student achievement in smaller schools as it does in larger schools.

Critics argue that such tests are unfair to low income group children but supporters of the testing programme argue that these very disadvantaged students stand to gain the most. They say that after years of holding low- income students to poor performance and low expectations, this system now expects schools to raise their expectations and focus attention on them thus giving them both attention and financial incentives to succeed. Low income group children must take the test like the others. The problem arises when tests are held on material other than what has been taught in class, and as low income group children do not have the facilities at home to cover this material tests should only be held on material taught in the classroom.

A research done by Professor Walter R. Tschinkel , a scientist at the Florida State University showed that practically the only factor that explained the difference in performance among the public schools was the proportion of children who came from poor families. Annual measures of the performance of elementary schools are based on standardized Math and Reading tests. Professor Tschinkel worked on schools in the Leon County. As Math and Reading are co-related he has given a combined test score in the analysis.

The annual school report contained information on each school’s characteristics, which included the number of teachers, number of students, the racial makeup of students and staff, cost per student and percent of students on supported lunch. The students on supported lunch has been used as an estimate of the percent of the student body from lower income families, because to qualify for this lunch support requires that family income be below a certain level. The data showed the performance in schools; that is the top schools scored four to five times better than the bottom schools. Using the statistical method of regression, it was seen that eighty five percent of the differences in school performance could be attributed with the difference in the students on supported lunch that is the percentage of students from poor families.

The racial composition of the students of a school which is very often cited as one of the reasons for poor performance has no effect except for its association with poverty. White schools had similar scores to that of black schools with similar levels of poverty. Thus it is seen that school performance is associated with the socio economic make up of the student body, it follows that in order to achieve good performance for the school, the school should have less students from the socioeconomic backward families. This pattern is with the behavior of population and not those of individuals, for there are many students belonging to the less affluent families and do well in their academic performance.

We need to focus on the link between poverty and low performance. What is the culture within these poor families that their wards have low performance? One very important fact is the educational level of the parents, especially the mother. This is known to have a direct impact on the performance of the child, but this is neither discussed as mission of the schools. Once we tap these differences in school performance we must look for remedies. For example vouchers have a negative effect on school performance. The children left behind after voucher-sponsored children have transferred out, are likely to be from the poorest, least motivated, most stressed families, who cannot afford the transportation, or have insufficient parental education, or cannot cope in one way or another.

Another interesting question that comes up is that do students from the same socioeconomic background fare different in schools of different socioeconomic composition. But more important as the analysis points out that the performance of schools is irrelevant. What matters the effectiveness of our educational efforts is dependent upon the cultural background that each student brings to the school. We have to take into consideration the performance of each individual student and focus on his or her performance because that is the only way to overcome the effects of poverty on educational or academic achievement.

Thus we have seen that parental socioeconomic status correlates strongly with child and adult achievement. It is directly related to parental income during early and middle childhood as well as during adolescence. It is observed that family economic conditions in early childhood have the greatest impact on achievement especially families with low income. “Income and social class are far from synonymous. Events like divorce and unemployment can alter permanently a family’s economic and social position. Because family incomes are surprisingly volatile, the relatively modest correlations between economic deprivation and typical measures of socioeconomic background enable researchers to distinguish statistically between the effects on children’s development of income poverty and those of its correlated events and conditions (Hill and Duncan 1987; Sewell and Hauser 1975)

When compared with children in families having incomes between 1.5 and twice the poverty line, children in families with incomes less than one-half of the poverty line was found to score between 6 and 13 points lower on the various standardized tests. In all cases, these differences were statistically significant. Children in families with incomes closer to but still below the poverty line also did worse than children in the higher income group. Also noteworthy was the fact that the associations between family poverty and cognitive ability appeared to be just as large for full-scale IQ measures as for the reading and math achievement tests. These findings were consistent with the hypothesis that increasing the incomes of children whose family income are below or near the poverty line would have a larger impact on early-childhood ability and achievement than increasing the incomes of children in middle-class and affluent families.

Attempt has been made in order to explain why economic conditions appear to affect achievement. Consistent with a number of other studies, it was found that the quality of the home environment–its opportunities for learning, the warmth of mother-child interactions, and the physical condition of the home–accounted for a substantial portion of the powerful effects of family income on cognitive outcomes. Specifically, the differences in the home environments of high- and low-income children explained the effects of income on the achievement scores of elementary school children. Thus, in the case of the cognitive development of preschoolers, income matters to a substantial degree because it is associated with a richer learning environment for the children.

Other studies have also found evidence that “low income produces economic pressures that lead to conflict between parents over financial matters” (Conger, Conger and Elder, 1997; Conger et al. 1992, 1993). This, in turn, increases the harshness of the mother’s parenting and thus it undermines the adolescent’s self-confidence and achievement. Therefore, a family’s income level is a powerful predictor of the reported economic pressure felt by family members. Economic pressure has both direct and indirect effects on adolescent achievement. Parental financial conflicts were particularly detrimental to the self-confidence and achievement of boys.

High parental income during adolescence helps entry into college. Income early in childhood appears to matter more for achievement than for behavior. This may be due to the importance of school readiness in determining the course of schooling for children. “Income poverty has a strong association with a low level of preschool ability, which is associated with low test scores, as well as grade failure, school disengagement, and dropping out of school, even when controls for family characteristics such as maternal schooling, household structure, and welfare receipt are included.” (Guo, Brooks-Gunn and Harris 1996; Brooks-Gunn, Guo and Furstenberg 1993).

“Preschool ability sets the stage for children’s transition into the formal school system. Children who have not learned skills such as color naming, sorting, counting, letters and the names of everyday objects are at a disadvantage compared with children who have mastered these skills. Schools tend to classify children very early–language arts groups are often formed in kindergarten or first grade. Teachers also tend to identify children as having potential school problems in the first years, with these ratings being at least as predictive as reading- and math- readiness test scores.” (Entwistle and Alexander 1989).

The same is not as true for behavior problems. The correlations between preschool behavior problems and elementary school behavior problems are not as strong as those found for achievement.

Thus taken as a whole, we see that raising the incomes of poor families will enhance the abilities and attainments of children. Most important appears to be the elimination of deep and persistent poverty during a child’s early years


How Much Does Childhood Poverty Affect the Life Chances of Children? By Greg J. Duncan, Northwestern University, Wei-Jun J. Yeung, University of Michigan, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University, Judith Smith, Fordham University, April 10, 1998 American Sociological Review 1998, Vol. 63(3): 406-423.

A Missing Piece in the Debate on School Performance, by Walter R. Tschinkel, Professor of Biological Science, Florida State University

Poverty, Privilege, and Brain Development:: Empirical Findings and Ethical Implications, Martha J. Farah, Kimberly G. Noble and Hallam Hurt University of Pennsylvania

Does the state standardized testing program help or hurt low-income students and students of color? By Irene Moore, January-February 2003 issue of the Children’s Advocate