Commentary: Middle student test scores in Delaware are eye-opening

By Dr. John Stapleford

New research reveals that student proficiency test scores for white, Black and Hispanic eighth graders rise and fall together depending on the overall socioeconomic status within each middle school’s attendance pool.

Across the country, eighth graders are required to take the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. For nearly the past 20 years, NAEP has consistently recorded these test results.

Dr. John Stapleford

For two decades now, Delaware’s test results have been startling and heartbreaking. For instance, only one-third of Delaware’s public school eighth graders are proficient in reading and math, including less than one-fifth of Black eighth graders.

In response to the NAEP test results, the Delaware Department of Education created its own proficiency measures with tests on English language arts and mathematics.

The latest DDOE proficiency results are:

• Among Black students, 36% proficient in ELA and 24% proficient in math.

• Among Hispanic students, 41% proficient in ELA and 32% proficient in math.

• All public school grades, 53% proficient in ELA and 42% proficient in math.

Are these consistently poor results for Black and Hispanic students due to cultural reasons or socioeconomic conditions?

We extracted data from the DDOE website for Delaware’s 32 middle schools. The tests were taken by seventh and eighth graders. Such pupils are at an age where proficiency measures are well-established.

Our first correlation between minorities and test scores were inversely proportional, namely the higher the percentage of Blacks and Hispanics in the class, the lower were the scores for ELA and math. The results were statistically significant.

Next, we ran the correlation between scores for all races and the percentage of low-income students at a particular low-scoring school. Again, the results were inversely proportional, namely the higher the percentage of low-income students, the lower the scores.

Lastly, we analyzed the data by middle school, comparing the proficiency scores for white students compared to Black students, then white proficiency compared to Hispanic.

The results were both statistically significant and amazing. In higher proficiency schools, all three races’ scores increased. In low-income schools, all three races’ scores were lower.

The results indicate that socioeconomic factors consistent with (a) low-income areas, including single-parent families, (b) poor diet, (c) inadequate health support and (d) crime, negatively impact a student’s learning progress. Essentially, more teaching and support are necessary to achieve proficiency among this group.

The DDOE’s “unit” method of allocating financial and other resources to school districts has been described by some as inflexible, rigid and antiquated.

Its algorithm only takes one socioeconomic factor into consideration, namely the number of “special needs” children, in its allocation formula. Most other states account for socioeconomic factors mentioned above (a through d above); Delaware does not.

We recommend that the DDOE reallocate the resources to the 10 worst middle schools, starting with Stanton Middle School, with an ELA proficiency score of 22% and math proficiency score of 10%, up to Read Middle School, with an ELA proficiency score of 41% and math proficiency score of 21%. Included would be William Henry Middle School in Kent County, with scores of 38% in ELA and 23% math. In Sussex County, Woodbridge Middle School, with proficiency scores of 35% in ELA and 24% in math, would also be included. With proficiency scores like these, the children are almost predestined for an unsuccessful life.

These poor test results could explain why New Castle County is among the highest in the country in the percentage of K-12 students in private schools compared to public schools.

Dr. John Stapleford is the Caesar Rodney Institute policy director for the Center for Economic Policy & Analysis.