Stanford study: Lansing schools had some of the lowest test scores in the U.S. over the past decade

Lansing School District Test Scores
Posted at 3:45 PM, Jan 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-18 11:35:01-05

LANSING, Mich. — Elementary and middle school students in the Lansing School District had some of the lowest standardized test scores in the country over the past decade and they lost ground every year compared with their peers at around the country.

That's according to the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, which tracked the test scores of students in third grade through eighth grade from 2009 to 2018.

"Let's just take it for what it is, which is when you compare Lansing to other districts around the state and around the country, they are low," said Lansing School District Superintendent Ben Shuldiner, is straight.

Student test scores in Lansing are on average 2.2 grades below the U.S. average.

What's more, students in the district are learning at a rate of -36 percent, meaning they're falling further behind the national average every year they're in school. It's the lowest rate in the state, and one of the lowest rates in the country.

Sean Reardon, professor of Poverty and Inequality in Education at Stanford University and the director of the project. explained that test scores show whether students are performing well, but a learning rate is a determination of how much students are learning in the classroom year-to-year, regardless of where they started. A learning rate shows whether students are being taught well.

The fact that Lansing students are falling behind by 36 percent each year is a reflection on their school system, he said.

"So the fact that the learning rates are low in Lansing suggests that not just are kids coming into school with lower than average skills, but they're also not getting the same kinds of educational opportunities while they're in school as the average kid in the country," said Reardon.

Shuldiner, who was hired in as Lansing's new superintendent in 2021, said it doesn't come as a surprise.

"Look, I came in here with open eyes. I looked at test scores, state test scores for all of our schools. There's some schools that are doing well and some schools that need to perform better. What does it tell us? It just tells us that there's work to do," he said.

The district's low scores can be attributed to multiple factors, including a high teacher turn-over rate, a lack of funding and the fact that many kids with higher scores leave the district.

"The kids who have more parental involvement, or who have teachers who have recognized them as gifted and help them, you know, those are the kids who often leave these districts," said Katharine Strunk, director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University. "And then the ones who stay behind are the ones who are struggling the most."

Reardon included socio-economic status in the data and notes that Lansing is below the national average.

"There's a lot of variation across the country in how well kids are performing in math and reading in any given grade subject. And that's very strongly linked to the socio-economic conditions in their community," Reardon said.

For example, Reardon said eighth grade students in the lowest-income districts in the U.S. have about the same math skills as third grade students in the most affluent districts.

"So there's enormous differences in performance. But what that means is there's enormous differences in educational opportunities," said Reardon. "Like kids aren't born smarter in rich places than they are in poor places."

But that doesn't mean that schools in poorer communities can't do a good job of educating their students.

The study found there are many less-affluent areas where students are learning at a high rate, and there are many affluent areas where students are learning at a low rate.

For instance, look at the data for the Detroit School District, where students are most likely of a lower socio-economic status, but their learning rates are closer to the national average.

"I think that's sort of good news," said Reardon. "Because it says that schools, school systems, have the capacity to undo some of the inequality that's created by socio-economic inequality between communities."

The data used in the study was collected before Shuldiner came to Lansing. Now that he's here, he has big plans to better the district.

"I think you should watch Lansing," Strunk said.

Shuldiner's plans prioritize teacher selection. Traditionally the district appoints educators to a school, but now Shuldiner is having his principals hire their teachers directly.

The strategy is to make sure each teacher hired is the best person for that specific role, and someone who wants to stay and help grow that school.

"So the best thing you can do to increase test scores, but who cares about test scores, the best thing you can increase student success is having a high quality, amazing teacher in every room," Shuldiner said.

To combat some of the disadvantages students come in with, Shuldiner is working with Big Brothers Big Sisters to start 6-year mentorships.

"So that when they start in seventh grade, they can go all the way through to high school, really supporting their social emotional learning, but also knowing that there's going to be an adult in their life that's going to help them succeed," he said.

Shuldiner says he wants Lansing is to hold him and his team accountable as they work to create better opportunities for Lansing students.

"All children can learn when given the right environment," he said.

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