Iowa school poverty and report card rankings

My local high school recently was named the top high school in Iowa by Niche.com, a school and college ranking site.

Ames High on Niche com

Today the Iowa Department of Education issued its first-ever school report cards. Ames High School didn’t do as well this time, only managing an overall ranking of Commendable, which is the third-highest report card category. Here are the number of Iowa schools in each of the six possible report card categories:

2015 Iowa School Report Categories 2

For this first year, the Department of Education distributed schools along a normal curve. In future years, the point boundaries for the school report categories will be locked into place and schools will be able to move in and out of the categories. In other words, down the road it is possible that some report card categories may have few or no schools in them.

I downloaded the Department’s school report card data and combined them with its free lunch data. Free or reduced-price lunch percentages often are used as indicators of school poverty. Here is what the free lunch percentage distributions look like for each report card category:

Iowa School Report Card Rankings by Free Lunch Percentage 3

Zero of the 34 Priority schools have less than 33% free lunch eligibility and 30 of the 34 (88%) have more than half of their students who are eligible. In contrast, 27 of the 35 Exceptional schools (77%) have less than 33% free lunch eligibility and only 3 of the 35 (9%) have more than half of their students who are eligible. Here are the median and average free lunch eligibility percentages for each report card category:

Free Lunch Percentage for Iowa School Report Card Categories

Here is the box plot for each school report card category:

Iowa School Report Card Rankings by Free Lunch Percentage 1

Here’s a reminder on how to interpret a box plot:

Interpreting a box plot

Iowa’s school report card results mirror those of other states, which typically show strong negative relationships between overall school report card scores and school poverty levels. So we now have an Iowa school report card system that confirms what we already knew from the peer-reviewed research and from other locations, which is that schools with higher poverty levels tend to do less well on indicators of school success. Whether we will actually do anything about it remains an open question…

Please check over my data and see if I made any mistakes. Also see my copyright policy and feel free to use these data and images as you wish for your own projects!

3 Responses to “Iowa school poverty and report card rankings”

  1. ‘School report cards’ are a useful mechanism for blaming the victim. They are a fundamentally flawed mechanism for holding schools accountable because they are usually based on tests scores and so on which are not meaningful in that context. It is like comparing the success of medical facilities by measuring the ‘survival rate of patients’ and then contrasting a walk-in clinic with a cancer clinic and complaining that the cancer clinic is way worse because way more of it’s patient’s died. Well, duh. Perhaps it is the best cancer clinic in the world, while those working in the walk-in clinic are the worst. Without looking at inputs, outputs are meaningless.
    The problem, of course, is such output comparisons are imposed on schools by an ideology of accountability: the importation of business logic into the public sector. It makes sense to let businesses compete, and to allow the incompetent businesses to fail. Adam Smith was not wrong. Ranking businesses works because low ranked businesses fail and their market share reallocated to more successful business. But schools are NOT businesses, and we cannot allow them to fail. Kids lives are at stake; consumers cannot easily move to another district for a better school. Business leaders can change how they do business to get better performance; schools cannot change their kids for better kids.
    As explained here, school performance is based almost entirely on the neighbourhoods where they are located. Telling the school it needs improvement is not helpful. The teachers there already know that; they are already doing their best and with less. What they NEED is for someone to give them a pat on the back for managing as well as they do, and (more importantly) more resources with which to do it better.
    I like the phrase ‘priority schools’ because that sounds like someone is at last going to make them a priority–which under another governor might translate as a funding priority–but it has to be a lot extra to make a difference. I’ve seen it done: where I live the district did significantly raise the funding to the worst school, with the result that that school was able to provide a quality education to its heavily disadvantaged students. The teaching I saw there was fantastic, and they got the funding for the aids and resources they needed. But in other jurisdictions, ‘priority schools’ simply means priority scolding or token topups that are better than nothing but which won’t change the school’s standing. Because no matter how hard those schools struggle to improve, no matter how successful they are in raising test scores (or, you know, actual achievement, which is different) they can never catch up because advantaged schools are also striving to improve and will always improve faster. Because the comparison is apples and oranges. Oranges will always be oranger.
    Blaming the schools (and by implication, teachers and administrators) is a ploy to distract attention from the real issues of poverty, class, and inequality of opportunity.

  2. One problem with the conclusions is saying that correlation = causation. Much like Dr. Runte noted, this data doesn’t mean that schools are not teaching well. It means that there are many factors that affect at risk children from low income families and communities. There are additional stresses that students experience which impair their ability to engage in learning when they come to school.

    What this data suggests (looking at it as if there is a correlation to low test scores) is that schools may need to look at how to create the type of environment that provides a sense of safety, nutrition, patience, respect, rest (maybe naps), and activity (more time to expend energy) to make up for what is not at home. Then the students will be able to have their brains come down from chronic fight or flight status, to a calm place where engagement is possible. There have been models of schools that have been able to put some of these factors in place (such as the Harlem Village Academies in NYC) which have shown some improvement in scores. It means stepping back from the traditional view of school as only a place to learn academics and creating a new view of schools as a haven to provide what the children need to continue mastering life skills which includes academics.

  3. There are high poverty schools performing at higher levels based on the multiple indicators on the report card. There is likely something that can be emulated by other high poverty schools as part of their own continuous improvement plan. I want to know what systems are in place instructionally, behaviorally, etc. at those schools above 70% FRL who are ranked “Exceptional,” “High Performing,” and “Commendable.” They are doing something right.

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