Early Test Scores Do Not Future Predict Academic Growth; School Quality Matters More

Some schools are doing more with less: advancing poor students who start with an academic disadvantage at a faster clip than schools serving wealthier students.

Early test scores do not predict future academic growth, according to new research from Stanford.

The research was performed by Sean Reardon, a professor who studies poverty and inequality in education at the university, and based upon analysis of test scores of students in grades 3-8 at 11,000 districts across the country. Those scores are stored in the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), which makes a range of data from schools across the United States publicly available.

Reardon found that, though test scores correlated with high poverty, districts with many economically disadvantaged students often experienced growth rates that outpaced wealthier districts.

"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 Reardon in a prepared statement. "Poverty clearly does not determine the quality of a school system."

The scores of students in third grade are reflective of the early learning opportunities available to children and not the quality of the school, according to Reardon, and those opportunities tend to be tied to the economic background of students. "But Reardon found that the average rates of academic growth between third and eighth grade bore very little relationship to third-grade scores and early childhood advantages," according to information released by Stanford.

Unsurprisingly, Reardon found that students at schools in poorer neighborhoods had lower scores at grade 3 compared with students from wealthier districts, but the rates at which they progressed was more varied, with some schools in economically disadvantaged areas improving at an above-average rate and some from areas with greater wealth improving at below-average rates. Students in Chicago advanced an average of six years as measured by test scores in only five years of actual time, for example.

"Chicago students start out with low test scores in third grade, but their growth rate is much higher than the national average — 20 percent higher," said Reardon in a news release. "That is true for all racial and ethnic groups in the district."

Reardon suggested that, in addition to helping families better choose high performing school districts, the findings might help researchers identify schools that are doing more with less with an eye toward understanding their success.

"There are many places where learning rates are much higher than you might predict on the basis of families' economic resources," Reardon said in a prepared statement. "We have to learn what those places are doing and build on those lessons."

Reardon's research is available for free as a working paper through SEDA.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].