For years, parents and policymakers have looked to test scores to gauge the effectiveness of school districts and teachers. New research from Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Sean Reardon provides a different measure: students’ academic progress over a period of years.

Reardon examined test scores for students in third through eighth grade at 11,000 school districts across the country. Third-grade test scores, he found–whether they were higher or lower than the national average–did not correlate to students’ academic growth through elementary and middle school. In fact, growth rates in many low-income districts outpaced those in which students enjoyed greater access to learning opportunities in early childhood.

“There are many relatively high-poverty school districts where students appear to be learning at a faster rate than kids in other, less poor, districts,” says Reardon, who holds an endowed professorship in Poverty and Inequality in Education. “Poverty clearly does not determine the quality of a school system.”

The findings were released in a working paper on Dec. 5 and drawn from the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), a massive online collection of roughly 300 million math and reading test scores from every public school district in the United States during 2009-15.

Next page: The research’s impact on communities

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