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An increase in poverty leads to a decrease in school test scores

Robert Niles
Published: August 8, 2013 at 8:46 PM (MST)
California's annual public school test scores are out, and scores dipped here in Pasadena in 2013, as well as around the state.

50 percent of PUSD students scored proficient or above in English Language Arts (ELA), down 2 percent from 2012 but an increase of 28 percent since 2003, the year the STAR tests became fully aligned with state standards. 45 percent of PUSD students scored proficient or above in math, a 1 percent decrease from 2012 and an 18 point jump from 2003 scores.

Pasadena Superintendent Jon R. Gundry blamed continuing state funding cuts for the decline. As he should. But there's an important part of the story missing, too. For the second year in a row, the percentage of students in the district who are poor has increased.

In 2003, "economically disadvantaged" students made up 63.8 percent of students tested in the Pasadena Unified School District. (According to the state, "economically disadvantaged" students are ones from families whose income is low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price school lunches.) Last spring, economically disadvantaged students made up 71.4 percent of students tested in the district. That's a 12 percent increase in the proportion of poor kids in the district over the past decade. Given that standardizes test scores track strongly with family income, that PUSD has managed to increase its test scores over that same period is nothing short of a miracle.

Photo from: Go Public: A Day in the Life of An American School District, filmed in PUSD

Let's look at the trends. In 2003, 17,117 students took the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests in PUSD. In 2013, just 13,242 students took those California state tests. That's an enrollment decline of 22.6 percent in grades 2-11 (the grades tested) over that period.

But let's also look at the how declines split among poor and non-poor students. The number of economically disadvantaged students in the district declined from 10,921 in 2003 to 9,455 in 2013 — a 13.4 percent drop. But the number of non-poor students in the district cratered, from 6,075 in 2003 to just 3,755 in 2013 — a 38.2 percent drop. PUSD lost middle-class and wealthy students at a rate nearly three times that which it lost poor students.

If you look at the numbers since 2008, the start of the global economic meltdown, the difference becomes even more extreme. In 2008, PUSD tested 10,010 economically disadvantaged students, meaning that the district's lost 555 poor students over the past five years. But in 2008, PUSD tested 5,055 non-poor students, meaning that district has lost 1,300 middle-class and wealthy students since then.

That's a 5.5 percent decline in the number of poor students in the district since the start of the recession, versus a 25.7 percent decline in the number of middle-class and wealthy students. Since 2008, PUSD is now losing non-poor students at a rate nearly five times that which it is losing poor kids.

Now, if you think this shows that local families with children are simply leaving the public schools, think again. Over the past decade, there are simply fewer families with children overall in the Pasadena area. Pasadena's growing older, as California's property tax rules discourage older residents from moving out, and high local single-family home prices discourage young families from moving in. (That's one of the reasons why prices are so high: With so few empty-nesters moving out and no new, empty land to develop, there's not enough supply to meet demand. But that's a topic for another blog.)

The boundaries of the Pasadena Unified School District extend beyond those of the City of Pasadena. But census data for Pasadena provides a rough approximation of local demographics. In 2000, people under the age 18 made up 23.1% of the city's 133,936 residents, or 30,939 children. In 2010, the Census Bureau reported that that persons under 18 made up just 19.3% of Pasadena's 137,122 residents, equating to 26,465 kids in the city.

That's a loss of 14.4 percent in the child population of Pasadena between 2000 and 2010.

In Altadena (also part of PUSD), the population of residents 19 and under (that's the data I could find) declined from 12,221 in 2000 to 10,529 in 2010, also a 14 percent decline.

The population data show how our community is changing, to the determent of our local schools. We've got fewer kids in our community, and, increasingly, the kids who are growing up here aren't from middle-class families living in single-family homes, but poorer kids growing up without beds of their own, crammed into small apartments or homes with multiple families or generations living together to be able to afford the rent.

Superintendent Gundry's right to point the finger at budget cuts, since schools need extra funding to help kids whose families don't have the income to help them at home. Middle-class families can pick up the slack when the local schools cut back. College-education parents can answer the questions their kids couldn't get answered when their teachers face 30-40 raised hands in class. When schools drop field trips, parents who have money in the bank can afford to take their kids on trips to museums and historic sites instead. If the school cuts sports teams, arts programs or after-school tutoring, parents who can afford an extra expense make up the difference by enrolling their kids in private after-school programs. Poor kids don't get that help, and most often pay for it in the classroom at test time. California's funding system for public schools makes the cuts even deeper in communities with declining school enrollments, such as Pasadena, as the state sets school funding by "average daily attendance." (See that article for an explanation why that system is especially devastating for communities such as Pasadena.)

So when you read about falling test scores, don't rush to blame teachers or administrators. It's time to start looking at test scores as a symptom of a growing poverty problem among our nation's youth -- and that's a problem that won't be solved by firing teachers, closing schools, or cutting more money from classrooms. In fact, those "reforms" are only going to make our education challenges even worse.

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Here are the PUSD grades 2-11 enrollment data from the past decade, from the California STAR test reporting website:

YearStudents TestedPoor StudentsNon-poor StudentsPoor Student %

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