Links and broken links: On the relationship between proficiency, progress, and poverty

OASBO’s recent analysis of school performance shouldn’t shock anyone. A school’s overall student achievement level, the Ohio Association of School Business Officers found, is linked to economic disadvantage. No kidding! One could practically uproot a forest printing the research that has shown the link between poverty and achievement.

But as we lament the generally low achievement results of Ohio’s neediest students, let’s not ignore the fact that there are schools that do fantastic work helping Ohio’s most disadvantaged students achieve at high levels and/or make large learning gains (aka, “progress”) over the course of the school year. (For a more extended discussion about the differences in “achievement” and “progress,” read our recent analysis of Ohio’s school Report Cards, Parsing Performance.)

Consider chart 1, which shows yet again the relationship between poverty and student achievement. The trend line through the scatter plot of points (each point represents a school building) slopes sharply downwards. This indicates that a school with a higher poverty rate is also more likely to exhibit lower achievement, as measured by Ohio’s “performance index”—a weighted composite score that accounts for all test scores from a school.

But look, however, at the far right portion of the plot. There is substantial variation in the performance index score of schools with 95 percent or above economically disadvantaged students.[1] Although a good many very high poverty schools fall well beneath the trend line (lower than approximately 80 PI), many other schools are well above it (over 80 PI and all the way up to 102 PI). It's not, therefore, impossible for a high-poverty school to display high achievement (relative the trend line or relative wealthier schools, even).

Chart 1: Strong link between achievement and poverty, Ohio schools, 2012-13

Source: Ohio Department of Education, Advanced Reports. Notes: Correlation: r = -.79 Schools with 95 percent or greater economically disadvantaged students are reported as 95 percent ED.

The link between poverty and school performance weakens when we look a school’s “overall value-added” index score, a gauge of school’s impact on student learning. In short, value-added tries to get at a school’s “effectiveness.” Consider chart 2, which displays the relationship between the “gain index score” of Ohio’s schools and their poverty level. Ohio calculates each school’s index score, via a statistical method, to estimate a school’s contribution to student learning progress.

The trend line on chart 2 shows a weak relationship between student poverty and Ohio’s value-added measure of school performance. The trend line slopes downwards very slightly, indicating that poverty may marginally hinder a school’s ability to impact learning progress. (A horizontal trend line would indicate zero relationship between the poverty and the value-added variable.) More importantly, however, the chart, shows that very high-poverty schools can and do perform well on the state’s “progress” indicator. The number of schools above versus below the trend line is fairly similar as one moves "up" the % ED axis (the horizontal axis). Similar to the performance index chart, we observe a wide variation in value-added outcomes of very high poverty schools. A number of schools with 95 percent plus poverty rates have high value-added scores, while a number of high-poverty schools have low scores.

Chart 2: Weaker link between progress and poverty, Ohio schools, 2012-13

Source: Ohio Department of Education, Advanced Reports. Notes: Correlation: r = .17. Schools with 95 percent or higher economically disadvantaged students are reported as 95 percent ED.

Does poverty matter in achievement outcomes? Of course it does. But, does it mean that schools are utterly incapable of helping students overcome their background, lifting them to high achievement levels? No, schools are capable. They can and do help students, regardless of family background, to achieve and learn.

[1] “Economic disadvantage” is Ohio’s term for students who are from low income households. Typically, these are students who are eligible for free and reduced priced lunch.


Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.