Improving educational outcomes for Rhode Island’s K-12 students is essential for the future of the state. While not an end in themselves, standardized tests can be used to measure school and statewide progress and guide accountability efforts. While extensive research has examined how student, family, school, and community factors influence test performance, one factor sticks out: student poverty (Reardon (2011;) (Carnoy & Garcia, 2017;) (Ford, 2011, (Kornrich & Furstenberg (2013;) (Duncan & Murnane, 2011). Because poverty is so closely related to performance, the failure to account for poverty can lead to misleading assessments of school performance, distorting policy efforts.
However, the relationship between poverty and school performance in Rhode Island, and how this should guide policy, is not well understood. Rhode Island currently uses standardized test data to comply with national reporting, benchmark performance, and identify opportunities for improvement. Expecting a fixed level of academic achievement for a certain amount of educational investment per student neglects the substantial variation in student experience and competency due to unequal family resources. A more nuanced understanding of the relationship between poverty and education would help to isolate schools that are performing well, and poorly, relative to their students’ poverty rate. Understanding the performance of Rhode Island relative to Massachusetts, a wealthy state and national leader in education reform, can help to elucidate the role of poverty in driving achievement gaps.
In this context, we used data on student poverty and 2018-2019 standardized test performance for elementary, middle, and high school students in Rhode Island and Massachusetts to examine the relationship between school district-level poverty and performance.