Questioning the Questions Asked about Education

Considering all the things I like about Twitter, having discussions or debates by Tweeting is not one of them because I often get lost and the character count works against elaboration and nuance.

Yesterday, I was added to a debate that appears to be about the impact of poverty on student achievement—and a central question about why some high-poverty students excel although most do not. One person seems to be seeking research that focuses on comparing high-poverty students against each other to tease out the reasons for why some achieve higher than most.

First, let’s consider that when we talk about student achievement we are almost always defaulting to high-stakes test scores. In that context, we must frame all questions about success, excelling, and/or achievement within some solid facts about what standardized tests reveal (and what they don’t).

The SAT remains a fair representation of how all student scores on high-stakes standardized testing remain strongly correlated with race, social class, parental education levels, and gender. See for example from the 2015 SAT:

2015 SAT ethnicity

2015 SAT fam income lev edu

Therefore, in virtually all high-stakes standardized data sets, we find that being affluent, white, and male correlate strongly with high scores while being poor, of color, and female correlate with low scores.

Therefore, when we ask why do some (a few) high-poverty students excel while most do not, we could just as easily ask why do some (a few) wealthy students score low when most do not. And these are in fact the same question for a couple of reasons:

  • Poor students with high test scores and affluent students with low test scores are statistical outliers, and thus, provide little descriptive power for making decisions about the general populations of students. [As I cannot stress this enough, please reread that sentence until you get it.]
  • The question about why do some low-income students excel is a loaded question (and that we do not ask the parallel question about the few affluent students who score low is telling) because the real intent of that question is to suggest that student achievement is mostly controlled by the student, her/his teacher, and her/his school. Therefore, by isolating why some low-income students excel, we would be able to “fix” the majority of low income students, their teachers, and their schools.

This second point is huge, and complex, because it is deeply flawed in its essential implication. Student achievement remains in the U.S. a stronger indicator of social realities than student effort/ability, teacher quality, or school effectiveness.

That stated, could student achievement be positively impacted by addressing individual student qualities, teacher quality, or school effectiveness? Of course, and what education reform is attempting in these areas continues to be more harmful than helpful.

For example, charter schools and Teach For America are increasing educational inequity for the vulnerable populations of students (greater segregation and assigning low-income students of color beginning teachers without adequate training).

Now, if I return to the Twitter debate, yes, there are high-quality researchers looking at why low-income students struggle and achieve (see Sean Reardon here, here, and here), but the fundamental question about comparing success and failure within low-income student populations is an inherently flawed process that focuses our gaze almost exclusively on individuals while giving systemic forces a pass—the exact systemic forces that account for the greatest percentage of the scores we use to claim success or failure.

That social class, race, and gender are predictive of student scores on high-stakes standardized testing is not fatalism (using those characteristics as an excuse to do nothing), but a call to shift proportionately our questions to both systemic and individual sources for why some students excel and some struggle in formal schooling.

Race, class, and gender inequity in our society drive low test scores for many students—students who are then too often mis-served by inequitable school practices and policies such as tracking, teacher assignments, and discipline codes.

Why do some high-poverty students excel academically while most do not is one hell of a complicated question. But in most cases, it is the wrong question because of the misguided implications at its root (discussed above) and we remain unwilling to address social inequity and continue to use inequitable tools (high-stakes standardized tests) that create the very gaps we claim we want to close.

We need to prioritize questions about our broken systems before we can even begin to assess why individual students compare differently than their peers—and even then, outliers will never serve as valid gauges for all students.


  1. howardat58

    The misuse of statistics and the misinterpretation of results has always been around (see Darrell Huff-How to Lie with Statistics) but it’s getting worse all the time.

  2. Lloyd Lofthouse

    Not only prioritize questions but control the questions that are being asked. I’ve noticed that in debates, the supporters of the for profit system of privatizing educaiton for all of the children who do not come from super wealthy famlies keep attempting to drag the conversation back to the talking points controlled by the corporate public education demolition derby. I thin we have to stop them each time they attempt to do this and point out what they are doing and then redirect those conversations back to the questions the resistances want to ask and answer. In other words, discredit the corporate talking points in as few words as possible and shift back on course.

  3. Christine Langhoff

    Your observation about outliers cannot be overstated. We are seeking school systems that work for all, not just a few. The position taken by Mike Petrilli that we should have schools that serve only the “strivers” is an insult to our democracy. The compliance and submission to authority that charters such as “Success” Academy demand is the price children are expected to pay to be deemed worthy. In truth, children are worthy in and of themselves of the best education we can provide – for every single student.

  4. tultican

    I have worked for all but one year of my 15 year teaching career in low-income minority majority schools. I have observed my students making study progress but as a group they don’t score as well on the big standardized testes (BS Tests) as wealthier kids. They are not failing but this ridiculous metric (BS Tests) labels them failures. My students just might lead our whole society out of our over-scheduled need to outperform others and build a great student resume for college instead of learning how to live. Kids in rich schools might be suffering even more than poor kids because they have given up youth and are driven for success (soccer club, music practice, private tutors, 6 AP classes – no time to be a normal kid). It just cannot be healthy. We need to change our toxic culture that is breeding cutters, depression and suicide.

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