December 9, 2007
THE federal No Child Left Behind law of 2002 rates schools based on how students perform on state standardized tests, and if too many children score poorly, the school is judged as failing.
But how much is really the school’s fault?
A new study by the Educational Testing Service — which develops and administers more than 50 million standardized tests annually, including the SAT — concludes that an awful lot of those low scores can be explained by factors that have nothing to do with schools. The study, “The Family: America’s Smallest School,” suggests that a lot of the failure has to do with what takes place in the home, the level of poverty and government’s inadequate support for programs that could make a difference, like high-quality day care and paid maternity leave.
The E.T.S. researchers took four variables that are beyond the control of schools: The percentage of children living with one parent; the percentage of eighth graders absent from school at least three times a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger whose parents read to them daily, and the percentage of eighth graders who watch five or more hours of TV a day. Using just those four variables, the researchers were able to predict each state’s results on the federal eighth-grade reading test with impressive accuracy.
“Together, these four factors account for about two-thirds of the large differences among states,” the report said. In other words, the states that had the lowest test scores tended to be those that had the highest percentages of children from single-parent families, eighth graders watching lots of TV and eighth graders absent a lot, and the lowest percentages of young children being read to regularly, regardless of what was going on in their schools.
Which gets to the heart of the report: by the time these children start school at age 5, they are far behind, and tend to stay behind all through high school. There is no evidence that the gap is being closed.
“Kids start school from platforms of different heights and teachers don’t have a magic wand they can wave to get kids on the same platform,” said Richard J. Coley, director of E.T.S.’s policy information center and co-author of the report with Paul E. Barton, a senior researcher. “If we’re really interested in raising overall levels of achievement and in closing the achievement gap, we need to pay as much attention to the starting line as we do to the finish line.”
What’s interesting about the report — which combines E.T.S. studies with research on families from myriad sources, including the Census Bureau and Child Trends research center — is how much we know, how often government policy and parental behavior does not reflect that knowledge, and how stacked the odds are against so many children. (The study is at www.ets.org/
Being raised by a single parent in itself steepens the odds considerably. Keep in mind that findings are based on statistical averages, and we all know people raised by a single parent who have thrived; I count seven nieces, nephews and cousins in my own extended family. But on average, the child with a single parent is 2.5 times more likely to repeat a grade. That child on average scores a third of a standard deviation lower on tests — the difference between 500 and 463 on the SAT.
And the demographics are not promising. In 1980, 77 percent of American children lived with two parents compared with 68 percent today. For black children the numbers are more stark: 42 percent lived with both parents in 1980, versus 35 percent today. In contrast, in Japan, 92 percent of children live with both parents.
Single parents on average will have less income and less time for a child, given all the demands. While 11 percent of white children live in poverty, 36 percent of black children and 29 percent of Hispanic children are poor. Half of black children live in families where no parent has year-round full-time employment, according to the analysis.
By age 4 the average child in a professional family hears about 35 million more words than a child in a poor family. While 62 percent of kindergartners from the richest 20 percent are read to at home every day, 36 percent of kindergartners in the poorest 20 percent are read to daily.
The report also found that 24 percent of white eighth graders spend at least four hours in front of TV on a weekday compared with 59 percent of black eighth graders.
These issues are intertwined in complex ways. A child watching five hours of TV can be a case of neglect or it may mean a single parent is trying to make ends meet by working two jobs and is not around to supervise. Absence rates are higher for poor children, whose families are more transient than wealthier families.
But whether it is a parent’s fault or the societal pressures on the parent, the results are hard on the child: The average scores for black and Hispanic children on reading and math assessments at the start of kindergarten are 20 percent lower than for white children.
And when those children are ready to apply to college, one of the surest predictors of how they will perform on the SAT is their family’s income: for every $10,000 of additional family income, the SAT score climbs an average of about 10 points, according to statistics from the College Board.
The report describes how much we rely on child care from an early age — half of 2-year-olds are in some kind of nonparental care — and how much worse that care is for poor and minority children. According to the report, poor children are twice as likely to be in low quality care as middle and upper class children, black children more than twice as likely as white children.
And it is black families who rely on day care most: 63 percent, compared with 49 percent of whites and 44 percent of Asians. Says Mr. Coley, “Our day care system may be reinforcing the gap rather than closing it.”
Another way to support parents of young children is paid leave when a child is born, which is routine in most of the world, but not in the United States.
According to Dr. Jody Heymann, director of the Institute of Health and Social Policy at McGill University, 172 of the 176 countries she surveyed this year offer guaranteed paid leave to women who have just had babies. The four that do not? Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the United States.
The United States guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but many parents do not qualify for even that, since employers with fewer than 50 workers are exempt.
To better support young families, California in 2004 became the first state to pass a law providing paid leave for new parents. A few more states, including New Jersey and New York, are considering similar legislation.
Mr. Coley believes this kind of government support is necessary if we are serious about closing the gap. “We don’t seem to get it,” he said. “Or maybe we think we can’t afford it, I don’t know.”