Poverty Cannot Explain America’s Mediocre Test Scores

Education Next LogoA recent article by Education Next examines the correlation between poverty and mediocre test scores in the United States. At a time when the national conversation is focused on lagging upward mobility and yawning income inequality, it is no surprise that many educators point to poverty as the explanation for American students’ mediocre test scores compared to their peers in other countries.

What does the evidence show? To prove that poverty is the major factor driving America’s meager academic achievement, at least one of these claims need to be established:

  1. America’s poor students perform worse than other countries’ poor students, or
  2. The child poverty rate in the United States is substantially higher than the rates in countries with which it is compared.

The article examines each in turn.

  1. Do U.S. students from low-income families under-perform their peers overseas? 

Low-income students everywhere do worse on tests of academic achievement than their more affluent peers. That’s as true in the United States as it is in every other country ever studied, and it’s been true for as long as scholars have collected achievement data. The question isn’t whether America’s low-income students do worse than our upper-middle-class kids. (They do.) It’s whether our poor students are particularly low-scoring compared to other countries’ poor students. Is that what’s dragging down our averages?

In fact, there is no evidence that disadvantaged students in the United States are under-performing other countries’ disadvantaged students. If anything, it’s the “advantaged” American students who are falling short in international comparisons.

If we look at a different marker of socioeconomic status—parental education levels—we find a similar pattern. In the United States, parents without a high school diploma are much more likely to be in poverty than their better-educated peers, and their children are much more likely than their peers to be low-performing and to drop out of school themselves.

In a study that examined whether some countries are particularly effective at teaching students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann found something interesting: It makes little difference whether countries are ranked by the performance of students whose parents had a college education or by the performance of students whose parents had no more than a high school diploma. If a country is comparatively effective at teaching the first group, it tends to be no less effective (compared to others) at teaching the second. The United States performs as expected, proving to be not especially effective at teaching students from the best-educated or the least-educated families.

  1. Is America’s child poverty high compared to rates elsewhere?

The United States doesn’t really have more poverty (absolute poverty) than, say, Germany. It simply has more income inequality (relative poverty). We can’t blame America’s “large number of poor students” for dragging down our average test scores because, compared to other countries, we don’t have an unusually large number of poor students.

Poverty is an issue for virtually every nation on the planet. Where reform critics get it wrong is when they claim that America’s average scores are dragged down by the particularly poor performance of low-income students—or that the advantaged kids are doing just fine. That is objectively untrue. U.S. scores are not dragged down by an unusually high proportion of poor students, as measures of absolute poverty find the United States not to be an outlier at all.

America’s mediocre performance is remarkably consistent. Yes, our affluent students outperform our poor students. But they don’t outperform their peers overseas.


To read the full article, see http://educationnext.org/americas-mediocre-test-scores-education-poverty-crisis/