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NWEA Study Shows Weak Relationship Between High Poverty and Low Rates of Growth

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Nov 08, 2018

NWEA StudyWhen research consulting director Andy Hegedus toured the hallways of an urban school in Delaware, he saw all the characteristics of a high-performing school—dedicated teachers and responsive, motivated, and engaged students.

“I thought the principal was on her game, the teachers were working hard, the energy was high, and the kids were happy—all the things you want to see in a school,” he says.

But the numbers told a different story. Hegedus was surprised to learn that this school was named a “priority school,” a designation for the lowest 5% of Title I schools in the state, based on achievement on the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System (DCAS), with a demonstrated lack of progress over the past two to three years.

“I was like, this doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “There was a disconnect between my experience with the school and how the school got rated.”

A study recently published by NWEA, a not-for-profit assessment solutions provider, suggests that these students are doing better than the data convey.

Using NWEA’s MAP Growth data from 1,500 randomly selected schools, Hegedus investigated the relationships between student achievement and growth measures and school-level poverty variables, such as free and reduced-priced lunch status. By dynamically adjusting to each student’s responses, MAP Growth creates an individualized assessment experience that precisely measures what each student knows and tracks their growth over time.

This achievement data are used to predict proficiency and determine college readiness. A student’s growth is also determined between testing events and can be fairly compared to national norms, regardless of starting achievement levels or instructional time. Educators can monitor improvement throughout the school year and across multiple years.

The study shows that while there is a strong relationship between schools with high rates of poverty and low student achievement, there is a weak relationship between schools with high rates of poverty and low student academic growth. These findings suggest that the use of achievement measures to evaluate school performance fails to recognize schools that are making remarkable progress and biases the evaluation system against schools serving vulnerable populations.

“What the studies show is that there are high poverty schools where kids learn a lot, and low poverty schools where they don’t, and vice versa” says Hegedus. “If we just reflect on achievement, and how ‘on track’ kids are, it only paints part of the picture.”

Unlike the No Child Left Behind Act, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows states to include student growth as an indicator of school quality or success. When asked how these findings may impact state accountability plans, Hegedus says he hopes they will assign more weight to growth without losing sight of long-term achievement goals.

Hegedus also hopes these results will help validate the hard work of teachers and administrators that isn’t always mirrored by achievement measures alone.  

“Having a measure that more closely reflects the role of a school or the role of a teacher will help us do a better job of not only identifying schools performing well, but also helping people in that school see their work reflected one way or the other,” he says.

Hegedus noted the importance of publicly reporting of “well-designed metrics of growth and achievement” that accurately describe how much students know when they arrive at school and how much it changes once they are there. He says this transparency, especially around low achievement, often triggers community attention and action.  

“Knowing that students are not achieving as well as desired can create urgency, galvanize a community around a school, and force conversations about improvement,” he writes.

The full study is available at

Alina O’Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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