Racial and Socioeconomic Test-Score Gaps in New England Metropolitan Areas: State School Aid and Poverty Segregation Racial and Socioeconomic Test-Score Gaps in New England Metropolitan Areas: State School Aid and Poverty Segregation

By Katharine Bradbury

Test-score data show that both low-income and racial-minority children score lower, on average, on states’ elementary-school accountability tests compared with higher-income children or white children. While different levels of scholastic achievement depend on a host of influences, such test-score gaps point toward unequal educational opportunity as a potentially important contributor. This report explores the relationship between racial and socioeconomic test-score gaps in New England metropolitan areas and two aspects of unequal opportunity: state equalizing school-aid formulas and geographic segregation of low-income students. The underlying methods do not allow a strict causal interpretation; however, both aspects are strongly related to test-score gaps, with poverty segregation between school districts especially important in New England.

The report first explores the degree to which state school aid is progressive, that is, distributed disproportionately to districts with high fractions of students living in poverty; more progressive distributions are associated with smaller test-score gaps in high-poverty metropolitan areas. All U.S. states distribute some state revenue to support local school districts, but the extent to which such aid is focused on districts with greater concentrations of poverty varies considerably. Five of the six New England states have foundation-type aid formulas, which distribute more per-pupil state funds to local districts with lower property values and/or resident incomes; all six states include cost adjustments in their formulas to offset some of the additional costs of educating students from low-income families. The estimated relationships suggest that New England metro areas with high average district poverty in states with more progressive aid distributions, such as Springfield, Massachusetts, should see somewhat smaller racial and socioeconomic test-score gaps than metro areas with lower district poverty in states with less progressive school aid, such as Burlington, Vermont; that predicted difference in white-Black test-score gaps amounts to about one-quarter of the actual difference between Springfield’s gap and Burlington’s gap.

The second factor explored is poverty segregation; test-score gaps are larger in metropolitan areas where, compared with white children or higher-income children, minority children or low-income children go to school with, or are in school districts with, more students from low-income families. Partly because school districts (and cities and towns) are relatively small geographically in New England, poverty segregation in the region’s metropolitan areas is most pronounced between districts, not between schools within school districts. That is, local school districts within New England metropolitan areas differ considerably in their poverty concentration and in the difference between Black and white students (or Hispanic and white students or low-income and higher-income students) in the average percentage of students from low-income families in their district. The sizes of the estimated relationships suggest that metro areas with the highest between-district poverty segregation, such as Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut, should have markedly larger test-score gaps than metro areas with moderate poverty segregation between districts, such as Manchester-Nashua, New Hampshire; those predicted differences amount to 60 percent to 90 percent of the actual test-score gap differences between the Bridgeport and Manchester metro areas.

States can alter either or both of these factors via policy changes. States set the terms—and thereby the progressivity—of school-aid policy. A recent proposal for Connecticut, for example, suggests the state tilt aid dollars more toward high-poverty districts, and the Massachusetts legislature recently enacted a policy to provide more aid to districts with higher fractions of students living in poverty. State policy levers regarding between-district poverty segregation are less direct and potentially more controversial. Nonetheless, statewide affordable housing policies in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, if more strenuously enforced, might reduce concentrations of poverty and provide more low-income families access to the higher-quality schools in low-poverty suburban districts.