The Roles of State Aid and Local Conditions in Elementary School Test-Score Gaps
Equal educational opportunity is a core American value. Yet many children of low-income or minority racial status attend public schools that are lower quality compared with those that high-income children or white children attend. And data indicate that, on average, low-income or minority children score lower on states’ elementary-school accountability tests compared with higher-income children or white children. Such test-score gaps serve as evidence of unequal educational opportunity.
Students’ educational achievement and test scores depend on a host of influences. Using variation among school districts and among metropolitan areas in the size of the gaps between test scores for students of different races and between test scores for students who are economically disadvantaged and those who are not, this paper builds on earlier research to investigate the roles of state school aid, geographic segregation by race or income, and other school, parental, and community characteristics in public-school outcomes.
- Test-score gaps are smaller in metro areas where districts include many school-age children living in poverty and the state revenue distribution is more progressive—that is, tilted more toward high-poverty districts.
- Racial poverty segregation (across schools within districts and between districts) is strongly associated with racial test-score gaps; put another way, where minority students are in schools or districts with greater fractions of low-income students compared with the schools or districts of white students, test-score gaps between the races are larger.
- Greater poverty segregation, both within and between districts, is associated with larger test-score gaps between students who are not economically disadvantaged and those who are. That is, in metro areas where low-income students are more segregated among schools or among districts, economically disadvantaged students perform less well relative to students who are not disadvantaged.
- Racial disparities in parental college education and unemployment have significant associations with racial test-score gaps: In metro areas or districts where white parents have a greater degree of college attainment than Black or Hispanic parents or have lower unemployment than Black or Hispanic parents, the disparity in their children’s test scores is larger. Furthermore, racial disparities in parental poverty in a school district or metro area are associated with larger test-score gaps between not disadvantaged and economically disadvantaged children.
The confirmation of a very strong link between test-score disparities by race or by economic disadvantage and poverty segregation supports calls for reductions in barriers to residential location choice that prevent low-income and higher-income and minority and white students from attending the same schools and likely receiving similar educations. The association between a progressive distribution of school aid and smaller racial and socio-economic test-score gaps in high-poverty districts and in the metro areas in which high-poverty districts are concentrated suggests that such a policy can contribute to educational opportunity that is more equal across races and income groups. Even if the relationship is not causal, progressive aid still can offset inequality in school district resources and disparities in district education costs.
Equal educational opportunity is a core American value. Yet many children of low-income or minority racial or ethnic status attend public schools that are lower quality compared with those that white children or high-income children attend. And data indicate that, on average, low-income or minority children score lower on states’ elementary-school accountability tests compared with higher-income children or white children. Such test-score gaps serve as evidence of unequal educational opportunity. This study uses information from metropolitan areas and from school districts to understand which factors are strongly related to the size of racial and socioeconomic test-score gaps. One key factor is the degree to which state aid to school districts is distributed progressively—that is, distributed disproportionately to districts with high fractions of students living in poverty—with progressive distributions associated with smaller test-score gaps in high-poverty metros or districts. Second, test-score gaps are larger in metropolitan areas and districts where poverty segregation is greater, that is, 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.