Gordon MacInnes and Bruce Baker have written convincingly about the problems with using free and reduced lunch eligibility to compare urban schools. Families below 130% of the federal poverty rate are eligible for free lunch; under 180% for reduced price lunch. These are almost always lumped together in publicly reported statistics, including those offered by RIDE.
However, the achievement gap between free and reduced lunch eligible students is almost as large as that between reduced lunch eligible and non-eligible students, as MacInnes points out:
NAEP reports results every two years by various subgroups, including one for students eligible for free lunch and another for those eligible for reduced lunch. In 2009, free lunch students scored a full 28 points behind the national average (204 vs. 232) on fourth grade reading. Reduced lunchers were 16 points back.
This is a very significant difference. To put it in perspective, New Jersey students were second highest on the 4th grade reading test, 12 points ahead of Tennessee, which was 47th. Moreover, gaps of the same magnitude are found on eighth grade reading and both fourth and eighth grade math tests. The gaps have remained stubbornly in place for twenty years. To dismiss such differences as "meaningless" is at least dubious, if not flat-out wrong.
Baker has more examples.
So... how does this play out in Rhode Island? You can get school by school numbers split out between free and reduced from the federal Common Core of Data (with 2009 - 2010 data most recent), and I've started working on a data graphic (which is by no means done), but the initial results are, well, a lot more lucid than I would have thought. It is all so tidy that I feel like I should chalk it up at least in part to coincidence, and while what follows is not a rigorous or authoritative statistical analysis, it should make a lot of sense to people with some familiarity with these schools. I certainly feel like I have a much clearer and more coherent mental model of what is going on now with urban schools in RI, charter and otherwise, than I did a couple days ago. So, with that preamble/disclaimer out of the way...
As you follow my chart showing free lunch rates per school, declining from left to right, you start with the Department of Children, Youth and Families Alternative Education Program, then second is the Segue Institute Charter in its first year with under 70 students, followed by 55 district schools, 42 in Providence, before you get to the next charter. In fact, the highest free lunch eligibility school in Central Falls is at number 48, believe it or not. That the poorest schools are in Providence is not surprising, but what is interesting is the way the remaining Providence schools and the urban charters tidily cluster together in three groups.
We're going to look at these groupings and take a very impressionistic look at overall test scores, using the current (2011-2012) NECAP scores, averaged over the whole school. There is no point in getting too dainty about this -- the schools cover different grade spans, the poverty rates might have changed, but I don't feel like digging through old data, etc. We are not trying to draw any fine distinctions here. I'd note that doing this more precisely would take a little work since the feds and the state don't code the schools the same way in their data dumps (of course). The scores will be in the format reading%, math%.
Group 1, .709 - .686 free lunch:
- 57. Reservoir Avenue School (K-5 PPSD): 60%, 50%
- 58. The Learning Community (K-8 charter): 73%, 60%
- 60. Textron/Chamber of Commerce Academy (charter HS): 81%, 0%
- 63. Nathaniel Greene Middle (PPSD): 71%, 51%
Notes: Reservoir and The Learning Community basically switched scores since 2010-2011 (Reservoir had 75%, 56%; LC, 60%, 50%). Greene includes the district gifted program. Also, wtf 11th grade math?
Group 2, .634 - .615 free lunch:
- 70. MLK Elementary (PPSD): 59%, 43%
- 71. Paul Cuffee Charter (K-10): 73%, 66%
- 72. RFK Elementary (PPSD): 69%, 53%
- 74. Times2 Academy (K-12 charter): 67%, 51%
- 75. Nathan Bishop Middle School (PPSD): 54%, 44%
MLK's scores are down as the result of an influx of students from closed schools -- which might knock them out of this demographic slice now. Their 2010-2011 scores were 70%, 47%.
Group 3, .466 - .439 free lunch:
- 98. Classical High School (PPSD) 98%, 48%
- 99. Blackstone Valley Prep (test scores for 5-6): 68%, 72%
- 100. Vartan Gregorian Elementary (PPSD): 61%, 66%
- 101. Highlander Charter (K-8): 68%, 55%
- 102. International Charter (K-5): 65%, 61%
Notes: Classical is the exam high school for Providence; BVP had only one year's worth of students and has added a couple schools since this demographic data came in.
Of course, the above is more meaningful if you know the context of the above schools. In particular, Gregorian and Classical are the cornerstones of the public education options for East Side white people (and white people citywide) and major demographic outliers compared to the rest of the city. So it is a bit shocking to see that Central Falls charters have almost exactly the same number of students eligible for free lunch, especially when charter school principals are quoted in national publications saying that compared to schools in the same area they have " a higher percentage of students living in poverty."
My takeaway here is that the "good" PPSD schools and urban charters are just a lot more similar than other analyses would lead you to believe, and their scores are mostly determined by demographics. From a parents point of view these are all good schools. But demographically, they aren't like the bulk of the PPSD at all. There were 29 PPSD schools with over 80% free lunch.
Finally, while I know how difficult it is for those very high poverty schools to achieve high test scores, I also know that it is possible, because I've seen it done. The double whammy is that those schools are too weak politically to sustain their gains, and that's the real reason that economic desegregation is necessary (not sufficient) to truly improving opportunity for all children in Providence and RI.