NAEP TUDA Scores—Detroit isn’t Boston

So everyone is a-twitter over NAEP TUDA (Trial Urban District Assessment) scores. For those who aren’t familiar with The Nation’s Report Card, the “gold standard” of academic achievement metrics, it samples performance rather than test every student. For most of its history, NAEP only provided data at the state level. But some number of years ago, NAEP began sampling at the district level, first by invitation and then accepting some volunteers.

I don’t know that anyone has ever stated this directly, but the cities selected suggest that NAEP and its owners are awfully interested in better tracking “urban” achievement, and by “urban” I mean black or Hispanic.

I’m not a big fan of NAEP but everyone else is, so I try to read up, which is how I came across Andy Smarick‘s condemnation of Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland: “we should all hang our heads in shame if we don’t dramatically intervene in these districts.”

Yeah, yeah. But I was pleased that Smarick presented total black proficiency, rather than overall proficiency levels. Alas, my takeaway was all wrong: where Smarick saw grounds for a federal takeover, I was largely encouraged. Once you control for race, Detroit looks a lot better. Bad, sure, but only a seventh as bad as Boston.

So I tweeted this to Andy Smarick, but told him that he couldn’t really wring his hands until he sorted for race AND poverty.

He responded “you’re wrong. I sorted by race and Detroit still looks appalling.”

He just scooted right by the second attribute, didn’t he?

Once I’d pointed this out, I got curious about the impact that poverty had on black test scores. Ironic, really, given my never-ending emphasis on low ability, as opposed to low income. But hey, I never said low income doesn’t matter, particularly when evaluating an economically diverse group.

But I began to wonder: how much does poverty matter, once you control for race? For that matter, how do you find the poverty levels for a school district?

Well, it’s been a while since I did data. I like other people to do it and then pick holes. But I was curious, and so went off and did data.

Seventeen days later, I emerged, blinking, with an answer to the second question, at least.

It’s hard to know how to describe what I did during those days, much less put it into an essay. I don’t want to attempt any sophisticated analysis—I’m not a social scientist, and I’m not trying to establish anything certain about the impact of poverty on test scores, an area that’s been studied by people with far better grades than I ever managed. But at the same time, I don’t think most of the educational policy folk dig down into poverty or race statistics at the district level. So it seemed like it might be worthwhile to describe what I did, and what the data looks like. If nothing else, the layperson might not know what’s involved.

If my experience is any guide, it’s hard finding poverty rates for children by race. You can get children in poverty, race in poverty, but not children by race in poverty. And then it appears to be impossible to find enrolled children in a school district—not just who live in it, which is tough enough—by poverty. And then, of course, poverty by enrollment by race.

First, I looked up the poverty data here (can’t provide direct links to each city).

But this is overall poverty by race, not child poverty by race, and it’s not at the district level, which is particularly important for some of the county data. However, I’m grateful to that site because it led me to American Community Survey Factfinder, which organizes data by all kinds of geographic entities—including school districts—and all kinds of topics–including poverty—on all sorts of groups and individuals—including race. Not that this is news to data geeks, which I am not, so I had to wander around for a while before I stumbled on it.

Anyway. I ran report 1701 for the districts in question. If I understand googledocs, you can save yourself the trouble of running it yourself. But since the report is hard to read, I’ll translate. Here are the overall district black poverty rates for the NAEP testing regions:


Again, these are for the districts, not the cities.

(Am I the only one who’s surprised at how relatively low the poverty rates are for New York and DC? Call me naïve for not realizing that the Post and the Times are provincial papers. Here I thought they focused on their local schools because of their inordinately high poverty rates, not their convenient locations. Kidding. Kind of.)

But these rates are for all blacks in the district, not black children. Happily, the ACS also provides data on poverty by age and race, although you have to add and divide in order to get a rate. But I did that so you don’t have to–although lord knows, my attention to detail isn’t great so it should probably be double or triple checked. So here, for each district, are the poverty rates for black children from 5-17:


In both cases, Boston and New York have poverty rates a little over half those of the cities with the highest poverty rates—and isn’t it coincidental that the four cities with the lowest black NAEP scores have the highest black poverty rates? Weird how that works.

But the NAEP scores and the district data don’t include charter or private schools in the zone, and this impacts enrollment rates differently. So back to ACS to find data on age and gender, and more combining and calculating, with the same caveats about my lamentable attention to detail. This gave me the total number of school age kids in the district. Then I had to find the actual district enrollment data, most of which is in another census report (relevant page here) for the largest school districts. The smaller districts, I just went to the website.



Another caveat–some of these data points are from different years so again, some fuzziness. All within the last three or four years, though.

So this leads into another interesting question: the districts don’t report poverty anywhere I can find (although I think some of them have the data as part of their Title I metrics) and in any event, they never report it by race. I have the number and percent of poor black children in the region, but how many of them attend district schools?

So to take Cleveland, for example, the total 5-17 district population was 67,284. But the enrolled population was 40871, or 60.7% of the district population.

According to ACS, 22,445 poor black children age 5-17 live in the district, and I want an approximation of the black and overall poverty rates for the district schools. How do I apportion poverty? I do not know the actual poverty rate for the district’s black kids. I saw three possibilities:

  1. I could use the black child poverty rate for the residents of the Cleveland district (ACS ratio of poor black children to ACS total black children). That would assume (I think) that the poor black children were evenly distributed over district and non-district schools.
  2. I could have take the enrollment rate and multiplied that by the poor black children in ACS—and then use that to calculate the percentage of poor kids from blacks enrolled.
  3. I could assign all the black children in poverty (according to ACS) to the black children enrolled in the district (using district given percentage of black children enrolled).

Well, the middle method is way too complicated and hurts my head. Plus, it didn’t really seem all that different from the first method; both assume poor black kids would be just as likely to attend a charter or private school than they would their local district school. The third method assumes the opposite—that kids in poverty would never attend private or charter schools. This method would probably overstate the poverty rates.

So here are poverty levels calculated by methods 1 and 3–ACS vs assigning all the poor black students to the district. In most cases, the differences were minor. I highlight the districts that have greater than 10 percentage points difference.


Again, is it just a coincidence that the schools with the lowest enrollment rates and the widest range of potential poverty rates have some of the lowest NAEP scores?

Finally, after all this massaging, I had some data to run regression analysis on. But I want to do that in a later post. Here, I want to focus on the fact that gathering this data was ridiculously complicated and required a fair amount of manual entry and calculations.

If I didn’t take the long way round, I suspect this effort is why researchers use the National Student Lunch Program (“free and reduced lunch”) as a poverty proxy.

The problem is that the poverty proxy sucks, and we need to stop using it.

Schools and districts have noticed that researchers use National School Lunch enrollment numbers as a proxy for poverty, and it’s also a primary criterion for Title I allocations. So it’s hard not to wonder about Boston’s motives when the district decides to give all kids free lunches regardless of income level, and whether it’s really about “awkward socio-economic divides” and “invasive questions”. The higher the average income of a district’s “poor” kids, the easier it is to game the NCLB requirements, for example.

Others use the poverty proxy to compare academic outcomes and argue for their preferred policy, particularly on the reform side of things. For example, charter school research uses the proxy when “proving” they do a “great job educating poor kids” when in fact they might just be skimming the not-quite-as-poor kids and patting themselves on the back. We can’t really tell. And of course, the NAEP uses the poverty proxy as well, and then everyone uses it to compare the performance of “poor” kids. See for example, this analysis by Jill Barshlay, highlighted by Alexander Russo (with Paul Bruno chiming in to object to FRL as poverty proxy). Bruce Baker does a lot of work with this.

To see exactly how untrustworthy the “poverty proxy is”, consider the NAEP TUDA results broken down by participation in the NSLP.


Look at all the cities that have no scores for blacks who aren’t eligible for free or reduced lunch: Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Fresno, Hillsborough County, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Diego. These cities apparently have no blacks with income levels higher than 180% of poverty. Detroit can drum up non-poor blacks, but Hillsborough County, Boston, Dallas, and Philadelphia can’t? That seems highly unlikely, given the poverty levels outlined above. Far more likely that the near-universal poverty proxy includes a whole bunch of kids who aren’t actually poor.

In any event, the feds, after giving free lunches to everyone, decided that NSLP participation levels are pretty meaningless for deciding income levels “…because many schools now automatically enroll everyone”.

I find this news slightly cheering, as it suggests that I’m not the only one having a hard time identifying the actually poor. Surely this article would have mentioned any easier source?

So. If someone can come back and say “Ed, you moron. This is all in a table, which I will now conveniently link in to show you how thoroughly you wasted seventeen days”, I will feel silly, but less cynical about education policy wonks hyping their notions. Maybe they do know more than I do. But it’s at least pretty likely that no one is looking at actual district poverty rates by race when fulminating about academic achievement, because what I did wasn’t easy.

Andy Smarick, at any rate, wasn’t paying any attention to poverty rates. And he should be. Because Detroit isn’t Boston.

This post is long enough, so I’ll save my actual analysis data for a later post. Not too much later, I hope, since I put a whole bunch of work into it.


About educationrealist

6 responses to “NAEP TUDA Scores—Detroit isn’t Boston

  • Roger Sweeny

    Looking forward to it. I wish I could help you with the data.

  • missmcinerney

    One of the most interesting hypotheses about Detroit is posited by Sarah Reckhow in ‘Follow the Money’. She argues that the case for improving schools has largely gone to cities where the mayor runs education. The reasons for this are varied, potentially it is because philanthropic foundations run by for-profits feel that they can ‘leverage’ their investment better in these areas, but it would explain why cities such as Detroit have had waaay less attention and cash than, say, LA or NYC.

  • educationrealist

    I don’t think the mayor runs education in LA, does he? I don’t follow school financing at all. Do you read Bruce Baker’s blog?

    Roger, thanks. By the way, I really like the comments you’ve been exchanging with tort on that other post.

  • NAEP TUDA: Does Black Poverty Matter? | educationrealist

    […] my last post, I point out that it makes as much sense to compare black scores in Boston and Detroit as it does […]

  • Piper

    NAEP scores reflect test-takers’ native intelligence and diligence even more than their exposure to education. By discovering that poverty predicts lower NAEP scores, you have to some extent simply rediscovered that poverty predicts low intelligence and diligence– or to put that in a more familiar form, poverty is a (less-than-perfect, but still pretty strong) proxy for low intelligence (which is in turn a proxy for poor impulse control). Intelligence is fairly heritable. Of course reversion toward the mean predicts that the children of particularly stupid parents– a group which overlaps especially impoverished parents– are likely to be less stupid than their progenitors, and to end up less impoverished as adults. Even so, whole neighborhoods of impoverished people (who are not recent immigrants or disaster victims or whatever) are probably neighborhoods full of relatively less intelligent and diligent people, whose children largely recapitulate the mental qualities of their parents.

  • 200 Posts | educationrealist

    […] NAEP TUDA Scores: Detroit Isn’t Boston and NAEP TUDA Scores: Does Black Poverty Matter?—I wish more people would read these, and not just because they were a lot of work. Big takeaways: yes. Poverty matters after sorting for race. and “free and reduced lunch” is not poverty. […]

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