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In Many Districts, a Child's Academic Trajectory Is Set by 3rd Grade

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Washington, D.C.

America's schools are intended to be an equalizer, a way to launch students from low-income families up the economic and social ladder. But a new study finds that in most school districts, a child's academic mobility is just as tied to where he lives as his economic and social mobility.

Using 14 years of school district data across six states, a team of researchers with the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, tracked the academic progress and graduation rates of 2.5 million children based on how they performed on 3rd grade reading and math tests compared to other students in their state. 

A student's ranking in his state's 3rd grade reading and math tests was 80 percent predictive of his 10th grade performance, after controlling for errors in state test measurements, the researchers found. That meant a student struggling in the bottom quarter of 3rd graders in her state was very likely to end up performing in the lowest 25 percent of 8th graders—and to end up in the same percentile in 10th grade. If a school district provided academic mobility one standard deviation higher than the average of districts in its state, its struggling 3rd graders on average improved nearly 6 percentile points on the state rankings by grade 8 and became nearly 8 percentage points more likely to graduate high school on time.

While the vast majority of students graduated high school, students' 3rd-grade achievement was still 25 percent to 35 percent predictive of whether they earned a diploma in four or five years. Urban students who struggled in 3rd grade were much less likely to graduate than those who attended rural or suburban schools. 

"I think we've had a terrible time with these gaps ... we haven't made a lot of progress," said Corey Kodel, a study co-author at the University of Missouri.

The study, released at the annual CALDER summit Wednesday, takes a page from work by economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues, who used years of tax records to show that a child's social mobility strongly depends on where he grows up

The CALDER study found initially low-performing students had a better chance of improving their academic ranking relative to students in the rest of the state if they attended a district that improved academic achievement for all students, though these districts tended to be wealthier and higher performing more generally.

By contrast, Dan Goldhaber, a co-author of the study at the American Institutes for Research, said he was surprised at how little chance low-performing students had of changing their academic ranking within any of the districts across all six states.

State officials believe "there is this lore out there that there are some districts that are doing much better jobs than other districts at addressing the needs of say, disadvantaged students," Goldhaber said, but the study found little evidence of districts effectively targeting support to close internal achievement gaps. "I find that to be kind of a depressing finding." 

Massachusetts, one of the states Goldhaber and his colleagues studied, found greater academic mobility among top students in a separate study. But the academic mobility went in the wrong direction—poor and black or Hispanic students who started out high-achieving were more likely to fall back to the middle of the pack by grade 6. That was at least in part because top black and Hispanic students were significantly more likely to move to lower-performing schools as they got older, according to Carrie Conaway, a senior lecturer in education and inequality at Harvard University and a former research and strategy director at the Massachusetts education department.

"It does seem to suggest that there're differences in the types of schools that students are able to enter," Conaway said. "This is looking at the other end of the distribution from [the CALDER study], but I think it does relate to it in that you have different opportunities for kids at different points of the [academic] distribution."

"I think that schools and districts can be successful at improving outcomes for everyone," Conaway said, but "it seems to be harder to shift the relative distributions within the school or district, which makes me wonder about the effectiveness of differentiation strategies that are within schools. ... Maybe they're just not very successful in doing this."

Image: Getty

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