The National Education Policy Center publishes reviews of research and reports from think tanks and advocacy groups.

In this post, Professor Jaekyung Lee of SUNY, Buffalo, reviews a report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute on the academic progress of children of color. To the surprise and delight of many, including me, TBF concluded that poverty reduction played a role in the academic gains in the past two decades.

Jaekyung Lee
University at Buffalo, SUNY
November 2019
Executive Summary
A recent Fordham report highlights the historic academic progress of Black and Hispanic
groups over the past two decades at the elementary school level on the NAEP exam. From
this, the report offers the major claim, based on its author’s eyeball test, that the academic
progress of students of color is attributable “mostly” to poverty reduction. The report, how-
ever, also acknowledges that correlation is not causation and calls for systematic statistical
analysis to test the author’s proposition. This review responds to that call by examining the
validity of the report’s arguments around progress and causes, looking to expanded data
sources, including both family income and school expenditures. The review notes uneven
patterns of achievement among grade levels and refutes the report’s claim that flat achieve-
ment trends among 12th graders are a result of dropout reductions. My own analysis with
data suggests that poverty reduction has indeed been important, as has increased school
funding. Further, I raise critical questions about national progress towards both excellence
and equity. First, academic progress at the elementary school level is undercut by an off-
setting slump at the high school level. Second, in spite of the greater academic progress of
Black and Hispanic groups during the 1990s and 2000s, Black-White and Hispanic-White
achievement gaps remain substantial across all grades in core subjects. Third, despite prog-
ress in poverty reduction, racial inequalities in social and educational opportunities as well
as racial differences in economic returns to educational investment persist. Overall, the re-
port helpfully brings attention to the significant academic progress of Black and Hispanic
students over the past two decades, although it is incorrect to downplay the persisting racial
gaps or the phenomenon of the high school slump.