School aid increases but not test scores

If spending more per student resulted in higher test scores, taxpayers would likely not object to paying higher taxes.  But New York State already spends $23,000 per student, which is more than any other state and has little to show for it (“New York taxpayers don’t need to pay any more school aid,” New York Post, Dec. 23).

On the latest National Assessment for Educational Progress tests, for example, students in the state posted scores that were “not significantly different” from the national average in math and reading.  In fact, fourth graders did worse in math.  I realize that test scores alone do not capture overall educational quality, but the situation in New York State can’t be dismissed.  Taxpayers deserve an explanation.

That’s particularly so in New York State, where funding has skyrocketed 80 percent from $15 billion in 2005 to $27 billion today.  I question if spending more per student will improve test scores.  Granted, there are other outcomes to look at.  For example, has the on-time graduation rate improved?  Has the achievement gap between the races been narrowed?  But in the final analysis, taxpayers persist in focusing on test scores.  Unless they rise, taxpayers are going to resist being taxed more heavily.

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4 Replies to “School aid increases but not test scores”

  1. There are so many variables that we would have to control for in order to use test scores to evaluate the impact of high or low per-pupil spending on academic outcomes.

    Obviously, cost-of-living differences — $50,000 is a low salary in a very high-cost area and a high salary in a very low-cost area.

    Also obviously, differences in pupil characteristics — areas with relatively high average family SES will have higher test scores than areas with relatively low average family SES. Likewise, areas with relatively many immigrants will have lower test scores than areas with relatively few immigrants.

    Less obviously, differences in the percentage of pupils who are “problem” students — ESL, emotionally disabled, physically disabled, learning disabled + differences in the amount/quality of support provided for these “problem” students can have a huge impact on per-pupil spending while having relatively little impact on average test scores.

    Also less obviously, differences in the distribution of the test scores can cause two areas to have the same “average/mean” or “median” test scores while having dramatically different pictures of overall academic outcomes. And, there’s the related issue of what the test scores are measuring — is it a score based on the number of correct answers or is it a score based on whether the student’s number of correct answers places the student in one of a few categories.

    Generally, I strongly support higher per-pupil spending and higher teacher salaries as investments that will ultimately yield a high return for society. But, if the objective is to improve academic outcomes for the low-SES students (whose mediocre academic outcomes for decades have been the driver behind the school reform discussion), then I would give relatively little weight to per-pupil spending or higher teacher salaries and instead focus reform efforts on improving all aspects of life for low-SES students in the birth-through-kindergarten years — particularly on improving the quantity/quality of adult-child verbal interaction for these students.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: You are quite correct that test scores alone are an unfair way to measure instruction. So much depends on the students taking the exams. Critics of this position, however, point to Success Academy as contrary evidence. It enrolls students from similar backgrounds as traditional public schools – the exception being special ed students – and yet posts test scores that surpass those posted by affluent suburban schools. Of course, Success Academy reserves the right to push out under-performing students, which traditional public schools by law cannot do.

    I too support higher teacher salaries to attract the best and the brightest to the profession. But I don’t think that higher pay alone will do much to change the dismal picture. So much of performance in school is the result of conditions outside school. Teachers have no control over these.

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    1. Success Academy — like virtually all charters — enrolls students based on parent application rather than where the family lives. It necessarily follows that all of the Success Academy students — even if poor, black or Hispanic) have parents who were sufficiently concerned/functional to learn about Success Academy, to complete the application process and to provide daily transportation to/from the school. Given Success Academy’s reputation as a very rigorous school, it’s likely that all of the Success Academy parents — in addition to being relatively concerned/functional — also place a very high value on academic achievement for their children. Assuming — as is reasonable — that the children of these relatively concerned/functional parents will themselves have received much better parenting on average than the children of the kids who end up in the NYC neighborhood public schools (many of whom have parents who are unconcerned/dysfunctional and sometimes extremely unconcerned/dysfunctional), it’s not surprising that the Success Academy students have better test scores than the children who end up at the NYC neighborhood public schools.

      The real test of Success Academy’s educational programs would be for Success Academy to take over and operate a neighborhood public school — enrolling all the local students who had previously attended the school and only those students. Success Academy will never undertake such an experiment — its leaders no doubt know that the experiment would show that Success Academy has no magic bullets.

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  3. Labor Lawyer: I agree. If traditional public schools were allowed to play by the same rules as Success Academy, I doubt that the results would be different. Yet Eva Moscowitz, who founded Success Academy and continues to operate it, gets fawning reviews from the media. She is a PR mistress.

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