Study Finds Poverty Predicts Accreditation Struggle

Published 11:17 am Tuesday, September 23, 2014

FARMVILLE — Area schools are fighting against a wave, says Longwood Economics Professor Dr. David Lehr, one that even smaller class sizes and better teacher pay can do little to counteract.

Four of the 10 public schools in Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward counties are in the bottom 10-percent of the state when it comes to SOL pass rates.

They all also have well above the state average of students eligible for free and reduced-rate lunch.

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Economic and demographic variables related to students at the school — including ethnicity and family income — are the best predictors for standardized test pass rates, according to the results of study by Dr. Lehr announced last month.
The study analyzed 2008-09 Standards of Learning pass rates in reading and math for third-graders in nearly every Virginia elementary school at that time.

Dr. Lehr said the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunches and the percentage of African-American and Hispanic students in a given school are important predictors of standardized test pass rates. This is the case even after controlling for other factors such as class sizes, levels of teacher education and teacher salaries, he said, adding that these and other variables often thought to impact test scores—including a school’s attendance rate, the number of days taught in the academic year and the percentage of teachers with doctorates—appear to have little predictive ability.

The work Dr. Lehr and his colleagues have done only confirms what a lot of people already know in their gut, Dr. Lehr told The Herald during an interview last week. “When you have a school system that has children with lots and lots of challenges — in particular, they come from economically disadvantaged households — that they will tend to struggle in the classroom.” These factors are an especially strong predictor of success or failure in reading tests.

There are lots of reasons why that may be true, says Dr. Lehr. “Basically, there’s a lot of resources involved on the family side — time resources and financial resources — to work with your child to read. And when you’re facing a lot of financial hardships, those can be real challenging.”

While Dr. Lehr’s study does not explain why economic and demographic variables are such good predictors, it does remind the community that the issue is complicated.

The composition of area schools has not likely shifted much over the past few years, yet some have seen steadily declining pass rates in reading. That could in part be due to the more rigorous tests. “This is an extraordinarily complicated topic and there are lots of different things that matter. Each of them probably specific and unique to the school that you’re looking at,” says Dr. Lehr.

There is no magic bullet, says Dr. Lehr. “Our work says you need to have tailored strategies that are multi-pronged that are unique to each school.”

Hiring teachers with more advanced degrees or making smaller class sizes are not necessarily a panacea. Each school needs solutions tailored to its needs. What may work for children struggling in Cumberland County schools may not work in Petersburg, says Dr. Lehr.

His study also shows that top-down state policies are not likely to have a major impact on pass rates, Dr. Lehr points out. He encourages state policy makers to give more flexibility to schools to tailor their policies to fit the composition of their student body.

What will likely be most helpful in improving SOL pass rates?

It may seem obvious, but if poverty is an issue, to have a permanent, long-term strategy to improve scores, says Dr. Lehr, communities need to deal with that issue directly. “Broad-based prosperity,” he says, “will probably drive SOL scores up more than any individual strategy a school could do.”

Policymakers and school leaders need to be mindful, says Dr. Lehr, “that particular strategic levers, that they could move, probably aren’t going to move the dial on the SOL scores a great deal. Instead, it’s more of these foundational issues, like poverty, that are really important.”

Lehr will present the findings of his study in a paper titled “Using Stochastic Gradient Boosting to Understand and Forecast Standards of Learning (SOL) Pass Rates of Elementary Schools in Virginia” at a meeting of the Southern Economic Association to be held November 23-25 in Tampa. His co-authors are Dr. Melanie Marks, professor of economics at Longwood, who initiated the study and collected the data, and his son, David Lehr, an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania who provided expertise in statistical learning models.