ACT Scores Higher in Small Districts With High Poverty School Size and ACT Achievement

Posted by Permission of  Rural School Community Trust

 

District Size and ACT Scores in Arkansas

A Few Details in the Data

 

Prepared by the Rural School and Community Trust

www.ruraledu.org

 

The Arkansas Department of Education recently released Arkansas: Land of Opportunity its analysis showing that students in large districts perform better on the ACT test, presumably because a large district can offer a richer curriculum. 

 

At the most simplistic level, the points made by the Department are valid.  Larger districts (above 1500 ADM) in Arkansas do generate higher scores on the ACT Composite measure, in general.  But the devil is definitely in the details here.

 

In this case, the devil has conveniently ignored the fact that poverty is the number one enemy of achievement and that a large body of research confirms that students from poor communities do better when they attend small schools in small districts. 

 

Using the most recent ACT scores available to the public on the Arkansas Department of Educationís website (2002), we grouped districts into eight categories based on their enrollment size and the percentage of poverty among the student population.  We used four poverty quartiles (the one-fourth of districts with the least poverty, the next one-fourth, and so on). For each poverty quartile, we looked at the 2002 ACT scores for large districts (above 1500 ADM) and small districts (below 1500 ADM). 

 

Here is the ACT reality for Arkansas (see table next page). 

 

Students in districts serving more affluent communities (top four rows) do better when they attend large districts than when they attend small districts. 

 

But students in districts serving poorer communities (bottom four rows) do better in small districts than in large.

 

The achievement gap between students from the wealthiest and the poorest communities is much greater among those who attend large districts (ACT score 21.0 for the wealthy, 17.7 for the poor) than among those who attend small districts (20.3 for the wealthy, 18.4 for the poor).

 

Moreover, the small districts are testing more kids than the large, especially at the poorest income level.  At each income level, the student participation rate on the ACT test was either as high or higher in small districts as in large districts.  For small districts the participation rate was either 9 or 10 percent for communities at every income level.  Small districts with above average poverty had the highest rate of participation at 10 percent.  By contrast, the participation rate in large districts fell as the level of poverty increased.  In the poorest communities, large districts got only 6 percent of their students into the test room.

 

If Arkansas were a state whose student population was overwhelmingly wealthy, district consolidation might then be a productive strategy to increase ACT Composite scores.  But Arkansas is not a wealthy state. 

 

And this data shows once again that making small districts better is the best bet to improve student achievement, especially in the stateís poorest communities.

 

Poverty and ACT Scores in Arkansasí Large and Small School Districts

 

District Poverty Level

District Size

No. Districts

Enrollment (ADM)

Mean ACT Score

ACT Participation Rate[1]

Very Low Poverty

Large Districts

28

117,956

21.0

9%

Small Districts

49

37,423

20.3

9%

Below Average Poverty

Large Districts

23

87,566

20.6

8%

Small Districts

55

38,554

20.3

9%

Above Average Poverty

Large Districts

13

58,077

19.2

8%

Small Districts

64

39,588

19.8

10%

Very High Poverty

Large Districts

12

36,844

17.7

6%

Small Districts

66

28,686

18.4

9%

 


 


[1] The participation rate is calculated as number of students tested divided by the district ADM.  The departmentís report cites a statewide participation rate of 73 percent.  This is a measure based on eligible test takers only, a figure not available to us at this time. 

 

Poverty is measured by free and reduced price lunch.

 

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