Is Increased Poverty the Cause of Declining SOL Scores?

The first column of % figures shows “Year 1” data and the second column shows “Year 5” data for low-income Virginians. Source: School Readiness Report Card searchable database.

The Virginia Early Childhood Foundation has published a new biennial School Readiness Report Card exploring the relationship between childhood risk factors and educational outcomes across Virginia. The Foundation’s big argument, cast cautiously as “one plausible interpretation” of the data, is that recent declines in SOL results can be attributed to a rise in the number of children born into poverty in previous years.

Starting in school year 2013-14, each pool of students taking the PALS-K has included a far greater number of students than in previous years who lived in poverty for their entire first five years of life. This will be true of all succeeding cohorts for the next 5-6 years. … Children with prolonged exposure to poverty are more likely to start school already behind, hence a dip in average PALS-K scores and “Pass” rates, while unwelcome, is not unexpected.

(PALS stands for Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening.)

This interpretation contrasts with the argument I have advanced on this blog that the recent decline in SOL scores coincides with spreading classroom disorder caused by the transition in many school districts from traditional disciplinary methods to a therapeutic approach that consumes teachers’ attention and diverts from time devoted to classroom instruction.

The Foundation’s argument is a not-implausible one. Moreover, I applaud the authors for couching their conclusion as merely “one interpretation” of the data. The authors concede, “It is difficult to make confident assertions regarding the effectiveness and progress of Virginia’s recent school readiness efforts.” I also applaud the Foundation for making accessible data in an interactive database that others can use to reach their own conclusions.

However, I read the data differently, and I invite Bacon’s Rebellion readers to weigh in with their own take on the data.

But first, let’s discuss what we agree on. Poor children comprise a growing percentage of the school population. Poverty is highly correlated with lower levels of educational achievement. Therefore, an increasing percentage of poor children in the schools will be reflected by depressed educational achievement as measured by SOL pass rates.  So far, so good.

The authors see the problem as children “living in poverty” for the first five years of their lives. The emphasis on poverty, a measure of income reported to the Internal Revenue Service, as opposed to “living in households headed by mothers with less than 12 years education” implies that a household’s material poverty, or lack of material resources, is the problem. This analysis fails to take into account the vast array of resources that the welfare state provides poor mothers with children.

It is far more productive, I would suggest, to focus on the educational level of the mother. Statewide, the percentage of births to less-than-high-school mothers decreased marginally from 9.7% over the five-year period covered to 9.5%. Among low-income mothers, the percentage increased from 81.5% to 83.3%. 

A mother who has failed to graduate from high school is significantly less likely to provide the home environment conducive to early learning — teaching numbers, colors, and ABCs — as a mother who has graduated from high school, college, or an advanced degree program. Teaching ABCs does not require financial resources. It does not require a laptop or high-speed bandwidth. It requires a willingness of the mother to spend time teaching the child things that even poorly educated, low-income women know.

As the economy continues to expand and the job picture improves, creating employment opportunities for even the most unskilled of workers, we can expect to see a decline in “poverty.” However, we don’t know if a decline in poverty may will be matched by a commensurate decline in the percentage of less-than-high-school mothers having children, which I believe is a much more important variable. If the children living in “poverty” level declines but the children living with less-than-high-school mothers does not, I would predict that we will continue to see deteriorating SOL scores.

Another point: the School Readiness Report Card data show declining 3rd grade SOL failure rates in Years 2 and 3, but then increasing failure rates in years 4 and 5. How does the Foundation’s theory account for that abrupt about-face?

The Report Card does not show failure rates for other grades. If we see the same patterns — declining failure rates three-four years ago then suddenly higher failure rates in upper grades in the past two years — then something other than an increase in children born into poverty five years previously must be responsible. My theory would predict that deteriorating classroom discipline would manifest itself in middle school and high school far more forcefully than in elementary school and, therefore, that the decline in SOL scores would be sharper in the upper grades. I have not checked the data, however, so I do not know that to be the case.

While I may disagree with the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation’s conclusions, I appreciate its willingness to publish the data behind its report and the authors’ caution in drawing hard-and-fast conclusions.

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7 responses to “Is Increased Poverty the Cause of Declining SOL Scores?

  1. A few random musings:

    1) If poverty is become more prevalent, it is among the PUBLIC school population. On a parallel track, private school enrollment and home schooling are growing, and those children exit the SOL testing pool, with a dramatic impact on the scores of those who remain.

    2) How in the world could school discipline issues impact scores on pre-school readiness testing, Jim?

    3) Correlation is not cause. Let me repeat that – correlation is not cause. Poverty is not the culprit in and of itself, but that single parent you point to raising a family with a low income may indeed have a harder time reading to the child, taking the child to the library or the children’s museum, or engaging in the other behaviors that lay the groundwork for school success. I think the readiness test they are referring to is largely based on language skills. Not many five year old children have better vocabulary or reading readiness than the adults who have taught them. Hence the push for more formal pre-school programs which is what that foundation is all about.

    4) I would strongly encourage you to walk a mile in their shoes before you complacently refer to “the vast array of resources that the welfare state provides poor mothers with children.” I can probably provide a more complete list than you could, but I’m not recommending that life.

  2. re: ” Poverty is not the culprit in and of itself, but that single parent you point to raising a family with a low income may indeed have a harder time reading to the child, taking the child to the library or the children’s museum, or engaging in the other behaviors that lay the groundwork for school success. I think the readiness test they are referring to is largely based on language skills. Not many five year old children have better vocabulary or reading readiness than the adults who have taught them. Hence the push for more formal pre-school programs which is what that foundation is all about.”

    Yep. You said it well Steve – and it’s always flummoxed me that others look at the same data and come away with wholly different interpretations that usually tries to find some culprits to blame for the problem.

    The simple and ugly truth is that the parents of these kids themselves didn’t even get an education as good as their own kids would get – and one more generation back before that Virginia engaged in Massive Resistance to outright deny folks a basic education. Should we be that “thick” to look at the data and essentially completely ignore the fact that folks with terrible educations don’t do well in the economy and when it’s a single woman with a child – it even more problematical.

    Then we get to the disruption and discipline idea as if the solution is to expel, these kids to go live on the streets while Mom tries to make a living, and Dad is in prison for selling illegal stuff to try to make a living, and -then these kids grow up to have their own kids…etc…etc…etc…

    Oh…and we could fix this if we had Charter/Choice schools… 😉

    • Oh, I’m actually all for the charter school expansion. Richmond has a couple of good alternatives at the high school level (Open High, Franklin) but there is a huge need for one or two similar choices at the middle school level. With all the headwinds, there are families and students who are doing it right, who have children able to excel, and private schools should not be the only choice.

      • I’m in favor of Charter/choice with the proviso that they are fully transparent on performance comparable to public schools AND that they truly serve all including the tougher-to-teach demographics and not become essentially de-facto private schools for the select few and we end up with a two-tier education system where the unlucky are placed into even more disparate circumstances. We have one of the largest populations of children living in poverty in the industrialized world right now… and we’re not dealing with the generational poverty cycles that doom these kids who become lifelong wards of taxpayers in one fashion or other.

        We need to deal with issue if we are serious about why we promise every kid an “education” …

  3. Geez – Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” more than 50 years ago. Poverty won. How many years have we had Head Start?

    A state that cannot allow for the redevelopment of a suburban office park into an urban area without commuters taking over local streets to the point where VDOT is considering a trial that shuts down a Beltway entrance ramp for six hours a day simply cannot be expected to have much of an impact on poverty.

    And as far as the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation is concerned, I’d say they are more about getting grants and taxpayer money to fund their continued existence than making a difference in poor people’s lives. Why don’t they spend their money in poor neighborhoods? There is lots to be done.

    • yes.. the war on poverty is no different than the war on crime on the war on traffic congestion or the war on drugs.

      Anyone who thinks those wars should culminate in a “final” victory – especially when they attribute it to one politician or another – what are we really “expecting”? I especially like the massive failures that VDOT has given NoVa. I mean we pay them billions of dollars and look at places like Tysons.. Maybe we need a “war on Tysons” ? 😉

      Seriously – we have made progress.. made strides… but it’s not something that is every going to be “solved”

      The thing about government-provided education is the premise that it offers each citizen an “equal opportunity” and without that opportunity – we end up with very unequal outcomes. It’s a fundamentally NOT what the entire purpose of public education – as opposed to a country where each person is responsible for their own education – i.e. the difference between OECD industrialized nations and 3rd world nations.

      • I believe in equal opportunity, but it also requires equal effort (or sometimes, well above equal access). If you have a chance and you don’t make it over 13 or 15 years (including free preschool for many low-income kids), I guess you don’t make it. And, yes, when you don’t make the effort you don’t get the same result as those who made the effort.

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