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The Economic Root of Low Test Scores

March 26, 2000|David Friedman | David Friedman, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a Markle senior fellow at the New America Foundation

Reports that 88% of California's 6,700 elementary, middle and high schools failed to meet the state's Academic Performance Index (API) goals stirred new calls for reform. Yet, the results conceal even more troubling issues. As the "new economy" spawns unprecedented disparities in wealth, social class increasingly determines academic achievement. Public schools cannot hope to improve unless the markedly unbalanced, socially divisive economic-development patterns transforming society are also corrected.

At first blush, the API rankings, which are based on last year's Stanford 9 test results, appear to be more about ethnicity than economics. Statistically, school ratings most closely correlate with the ratio of white and Latino students, the two groups that make up more than 82% of the K-12 population. API scores increase sharply as the proportion of white students rises, but fall as the ratio of Latinos grows.

But closer inspection shows that such ethnic data reflect the growing socioeconomic divide between white and Latino populations. White students tend to come from wealthier families with a long histories of education and economic achievement. Most Latinos are recent immigrants. Many are just beginning the multigenerational struggle for advancement.

API results are profoundly shaped by these facts. Surveys used to compute the rankings show that nearly 70% of the parents of Latino students have a high-school education or less; just 30% attended college. In contrast, 80% of all white pupils have a parent with at least some college experience. Half of all Latino elementary students have limited English proficiency, compared with just 2% of white pupils. About 65% qualify for subsidized student lunches versus 19% for white students.

These socioeconomic differentials translate into hugely disparate academic outcomes. The average API for socially disadvantaged students--those qualifying for subsidized lunches or whose parents didn't graduate from high school--was 499, a staggering 118 points below the statewide average. Combined reading and math test scores for 4th-grade Latinos whose parents didn't attend college were about 50 points lower than for students from families with such experience. Language-challenged or poorer Latinos and whites scored from 30-50 points worse than their counterparts with better English skills and higher family incomes.

Why do affluent students from well-educated families typically do better? Wealthier children face far fewer pressures to work during school or to quit before graduation to earn a living. Better- educated parents understand schoolwork and thus are able to help with homework.

Numerous studies also show that education spending is skewed in favor of wealthier communities. API rankings markedly drop, for example, as a school's percentage of noncredentialed teachers rises. Students from poorer families are far more likely to be taught by such teachers. A greater proportion of socially disadvantaged and Latino pupils are shoehorned into year-round schools, whose average API was 22 points lower than for more affluent campuses.

In the past, balanced economic development allowed America to accommodate similar wealth and education disparities. Early 19th-century European immigrants, for example, were absorbed by, and later controlled, many of the country's once-flourishing manufacturing industries. As their economic status rose, their children and grandchildren became progressively better educated, eventually shifting into white-collar service and professional occupations.

Recent immigrants have generally followed this pattern. But during the 1990s, California's political and economic climate, as in many other regions, shifted in favor of white-collar, cyber-economic development. Urban policies neglected, if not shunned, other forms of economic growth, including inner-city school construction, on which the state's aspiring working classes historically depended. Influential politicians from privileged coastal and Bay Area enclaves resisted legislation making it easier to redevelop former industrial sites throughout immigrant-rich communities. Eventually, almost all the state's critical urban revitalization needs were subordinated to environmental and other new-economy concerns.

The California economy sharply changed course. During 1990-99, the state generated 1.6 million jobs, a 13% growth rate far below the national norm. Only 23% of this expansion occurred in socially diverse cities--Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose--and Orange County, by far the most anemic urban growth in California history. More than 65% of all new jobs were divided among very high-end professional and extremely low-wage personal service employment; 120,000 manufacturing positions evaporated from the state.

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