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Philip Pham

Abstract

In this paper, I examine the current state of the school reform movement by developing

a model to predict high school test scores in California based on socioeconomic data, school

type, and teacher characteristics. Based on the statistical significance of predictors, I make

inferences about the effectiveness about proposed school reforms. My results indicate that

socioeconomic traits and teacher quality most strongly correlate with high test scores, while

promising reforms such as charter schools fail to make any statistically significant difference.

Thus, besides solving the problem of socioeconomic inequality, common sense approaches like

better teaching remain the best way to improve to improve high school test scores.

Introduction

In recent years, standardized testing has jumped to the forefront of the debate on national educa-

tion reform. If we are to improve our nation’s schools, some kind of metric is needed to measure

that improvement. There is much debate on whether standardized tests are even useful in con-

veying how much children are learning. Despite this opposition, schools are increasingly judged

on these test scores, and therefore, allocated funding based on them. Thus, there is much interest

in how improve these scores.

In this study, I examine the statewide high school test results from the California Standards

Test. I then develop a model to predict these test results from socioeconomic characteristics of

the students, characteristics of the teachers, and census data. From the correlations found in the

model, I then suggest possible public policy options that may improve high school test scores.

Method

I obtained data from the California Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) [2] and the US

Census. [1] All data from STAR were for the 2009-2010 school year. The census data are from 2000

(2010 census data were not yet released at the time of this writing). The data obtained for 1,138

high schools in California are listed in Table 4 on page 8. Schools with an enrollment under 100

were dropped, which left us with 1,094 high schools. A summary of the variables of interest can

be found in Table 1.

Not all data could be obtained at the high school level. Some were obtained only at the district

or county level and were merged with the high school data. An academic performance index (API)

1

Summary of Data

Number

Total 1,094

Charter 168

Year Round 44

Largest Ethnic Group

African American 32

American Indian 2

Asian 58

Filipino 4

Hispanic 619

White 379

% AYP LA Proficient 55.0 ± 0.547

% AYP Math Proficient 54.0 ± 0.564

Academic Performance Index (API) 54.5 ± 0.543

% English Learners 14.5 ± 0.382

% Free Meals 50.0 ± 0.835

Average Teacher Salary 67,200 ± 217

Pupils Per Teacher 23 ± 0.126

School Enrollment 1590 ± 302

Median Household Value 204,000 ± 2,660

Attendance 89.5 ± 0.202

% Teachers < 2 Years 2.76 ± 0.00626

for each high school was created by taking the average of % AYP LA Proficient and % AYP Math

Proficient. We are justified in doing this since the correlation between the two is greater than

0.90.

Histograms for some key variables can be found in Figure 3 on page 9. Most predictors had

skewed normal distributions with several outliers present. A log transformation was used on %

English Learners since it was very skewed to the right. A scatter plot and correlation matrix can

be found in Figure 4 on page 10. One particularly high correlation to note is between % English

Learners and % Free Meals (R = 0.65). Despite this, both are included in my models because

provides additional information. In particular, % Free Meals better predicts test scores in African

American schools compared to % English Learners (R2 = 0.34 versus R2 = 0.08). However, %

Free Meals is a poor predictor in Hispanic schools compared to % English Learners (R2 = 0.10

versus R2 = 0.254).

Models were created to predict the academic performance index of each high school from the

2

predictors in Table 4. One model was obtained using a backwards-stepping Bayesian informa-

tion criteria (BIC) method. Another was obtained through the use of variable-added plots and

information from literature about what is thought to drive test scores. Leverage points and out-

liers were then checked and found to be valid. The former model contained 13 predictors, and

the latter contained 18. Thus, 31 two-sided tests of statistical significance were performed. I then

normalized the coefficients so that the effects of each predictors are easily comparable.

Results

In running 31 two-sided tests of statistical significance, we would expect that 1 or 2 variables

would be statistically significant by chance if we use α = 0.05 as our level of significance. There

are 12 statistically significant predictors in both Model A and Model B. Thus, the correlations with

test scores are real.

Models

Running a backwards-stepping BIC, we obtain a model (Model A) to predict API with an R2 value

of ∼0.61 (see Table 2). Since the BIC works without regard for multicollinearity, a correlation

matrix was generated, and variance inflation factors (VIF) were calculated. Only one predictor

was found to be problematic, % Minority, which had a VIF of over 5, the usual cutoff, and was

highly correlated with the Largest Ethnic Group indicators.

Another model was generated based on the current literature on education in order to gain

some sense of the effectiveness of various school reforms and public policy options. Due to cur-

rent proposed reforms, the indicators Year Round and Charter were included. Moreover, charter

schools tend to be more segregated, [7] so we added interaction terms (only African American,

Hispanic, and White were included since the other races did not have a significant number of

charter schools in which they were the largest ethnic group). Given the push for smaller schools,

School Enrollment was also included. Finally, % Minority was removed due to multicollinearity

as well. This model (Model B) can be seen in Table 3. Diagnostic plots for the model can be seen

in Figure 1. The model appears to be valid since the variance is normally distributed and con-

stant. Moreover, a partial F-test between Model A and Model B gives us a p-value of 0.0088, so the

results for Model B are statistically significant. So, Model B was chosen based on the additional

information it provides us about various school reform proposals.

Interpretation

We are able to develop models that are fairly good predictors of the tests scores, with an R2 value

of ∼0.61 in both models. Unsurprisingly, the best predictors were those based on race and in-

come. The commonly seen achievement gap between races is present with Asians performing

best, then Whites, Filipinos, Hispanics, African Americans, and American Indians in descending

order. Moreover, high values of % English Learners, which was associated with a high number

of Hispanics was correlated with low test scores. Poverty indicators like high values of % Free

Meals and low values of Median Household Value further contribute to low test scores.

3

Regression Summary for Model A

Normalized coefficient

Predictor t value Pr(> |t|)

estimate ± std. error

(Intercept) 17.48 ± 5.77 3.03 0.00253

log(% English Learners + 1) −28.39 ± 2.46 −11.53 < 2 × 10−16

% Free Meals −9.51 ± 2.23 −4.27 2.16 × 10−5

Pupils Per Teacher 17.065 ± 4.06 4.20 2.83 × 10−5

Average Teacher Salary 29.96 ± 5.54 5.40 8.00 × 10−8

Median Household Value 10.83 ± 2.26 4.79 1.93 × 10−6

Attendance 34.27 ± 5.51 6.21 7.39 × 10−10

% Minority −7.30 ± 3.20 −2.83 0.0226

Largest Ethnic Group Indicators

African American −15.91 ± 2.62 −6.06 1.83 × 10−9

American Indian −21.30 ± 8.20 −2.60 0.00949

Asian 12.35 ± 2.03 6.09 1.54 × 10−9

Filipino 2.60 ± 5.86 0.444 0.657

Hispanic −5.12 ± 1.43 −3.59 0.000351

Value

R2 0.6117

Adjusted R2 0.6073

RMSE 11.18

Mean of Response 54.45

Observations 1094

The more interesting results are those for Average Teacher Salary, Pupils Per Teacher,

School Enrollment, Attendance, Charter, % Teachers < 2 years, and Year Round.

It is not too surprising that Attendance and Average Teacher Salary are both statistically

significant and positively correlated with higher test scores. After all, students must be in school

in order to learn. Higher teacher salaries indicate that the district is in a wealthier area, and the

quality of instruction is higher. [5] One should be cautious about interpreting the high coefficient

of Attendance since the range is compressed, for the 25/75 percentile is 86–94% (see Figure 3).

Thus, going from the bottom end to the top end involves increasing Attendance by 10, which on

average, increases API merely by 3.

Conversely, perhaps most surprising are the predictors associated with school size: Pupils

Per Teacher and School Enrollment. Pupils Per Teacher is positively correlated with higher

test scores, while School Enrollment has no effect. This seems to fly in the face of decades of

efforts to shrink schools and class sizes, and many studies have shown the benefits in the form

of higher test scores. [6] However, current research supports this finding. A recent study [11] has

4

Regression Summary for Model B

Normalized coefficient

Predictor t value Pr(> |t|)

estimate ± std. error

(Intercept) 21.19 ± 6.49 3.26 0.00115

log(% English Learners + 1) −31.99 ± 2.45 −13.05 < 2 × 10−16

% Free Meals −10.74 ± 2.09 −5.14 3.20 × 10−7

Average Teacher Salary 29.10 ± 6.04 −4.82 1.64 × 10−6

Pupils Per Teacher 13.03 ± 4.36 2.99 0.00285

School Enrollment 3.71 ± 2.34 1.59 0.112

Median Household Value 9.97 ± 2.33 4.27 2.09 × 10−5

Attendance 30.27 ± 5.79 5.23 2.03 × 10−7

% Teachers < 2 Years 4.06 ± 3.11 1.31 0.191

Year Round −3.93 ± 1.77 −2.22 0.0268

Largest Ethnic Group Indicators

African American −17.46 ± 2.82 −6.19 8.73 × 10−10

American Indian −25.69 ± 8.06 −3.19 0.00148

Asian 9.62 ± 1.66 5.81 8.37 × 10−9

Filipino −1.26 ± 5.70 −0.222 0.824

Hispanic −6.78 ± 1.08 −6.29 4.57 × 10−10

Charter Interaction Terms

Charter:African American −5.84 ± 4.14 −1.41 0.158

Charter:Hispanic −2.59 ± 1.33 −1.95 0.0520

Charter:White 0.0950 ± 2.15 0.044 0.965

Value

R2 0.6172

Adjusted R2 0.6111

RMSE 11.10

Mean of Response 54.45

Observations 1094

shown that class sizes are not nearly as important as teacher quality. Indeed, if one accepts

Average Teacher Salary as an indication of teacher quality, one sees that higher quality, i.e.

higher salaried, teachers are generally in schools with higher student-to-teacher ratios and en-

rollment (the correlation of Pupils Per Teacher and School Enrollment with Average Teacher

Salary is R = 0.28 and R = 0.40, respectively).

Another shocking finding is that new teachers are more effective, indicated by the positive

coefficient for % Teachers < 2 years, which goes against conventional wisdom. This predictor is

on the borderline of statistical significance. The research on this issue varies with some researchers

5

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0.0

Fitted values Leverage

finding that teacher experience has a positive impact, [3] whereas others do not. [10] One reason that

the correlation may be positive is that teachers with a recent educational experience (e.g. freshly

minted teachers out of college) have a positive impact on their students. [9] However, this positive

coefficient may be a result of multicollinearity since we see that the correlation between API and %

Teachers < 2 years is negative in the correlation matrix in Figure 4.

Two often discussed school reforms are year-round schooling and charter schools. Year Round

is statistically significant and appears to worsen test scores. Most research, however, points to the

contrary. [8] One possible explanation for this deleterious effect is that year-round schooling is

experimental and often done with high-risk students. However, I found no correlation between

Year Round and poverty indicators like % Free Meals or Median Household Value.

On the other hand, schools with charter status appear to do worst or no better than normal

public schools. In the case of African Americans, if one looks at schools with a African Americans,

charter schools perform better (Figure 2). However, this difference is not statistically-significant

(p-value of 0.25). This may be a function of low sample size, though, since only 32 schools with

African Americans as the largest ethnic group were in the data set. The statistically significant

negative impact of charter schools on Hispanics is disconcerting, but the effect is small.

6

Charter Schools for African Americans

70

6050

API

40 30

20

N Y

Charter Status

Figure 2: Box plots comparing the percent proficient in African-American-dominated schools de-

pending on charter status

Discussion

We have built a model in order to find what characteristics in a school and surrounding neigh-

borhood are correlated with higher test scores. Our study confirms what many past studies have

shown: the primary driver of high test scores in schools is socioeconomic status, namely race and

wealth. Unfortunately, altering these factors is often politically infeasible, requiring complicated

busing schemes or the passing of laws that extend beyond the realm of education into areas such as

housing policy and wealth redistribution. However, some areas like Wake County have pursued

the goal of socioeconomic integration with successful results.

Correlation does not imply causation, so our model does not offer any kind of solution to the

problem of low-achieving schools. However, it does suggest some follow-up studies on the effects

teacher salaries, school size, charter schools, and year-round schooling.

Of the statistically significant predictors, perhaps teacher salary is the most adjustable. In-

deed, higher salaries have been shown to attract teachers from more selective undergraduate in-

stitutions, [5] which has be shown to significantly improve test scores of the students. [4] Thus, it is

a shame that many schools appear to be trading higher quality teachers for more lower quality

teachers in order to improve their student-to-teacher ratio, which has a much smaller effect than

teacher quality.

Given this, the cuts in state education due to the recent recession acquire new significance.

many teachers have been laid off or have been forced to take pay cuts. This results in lower

teacher salaries, which may drive away the high-quality teachers. Moreover, the teachers that are

laid off are often those with little experience. Our study suggests that these teachers may be the

7

most effective. More inquiry is needed in this matter.

Our study comes to an ambiguous conclusion regarding year-round schooling and charter

schools. An experiment with stricter controls and more detailed data needs to be done given the

location of such schools in high-risk areas.

Overall, it appears that there is no magic bullet to solve the nation’s education woes. Even the

best schools do little to alleviate stubbornly persistent socioeconomic inequality. Fads, like smaller

class sizes, year-round schooling, and charter schools do not seem to have a large impact. The

most effective solutions appear to be basic ones: ensuring all children regardless of socioeconomic

status have access to great teachers and making sure they come to school in the first place.

School Name STAR High School Name of high school

District Name STAR High School The district containing the high school

County Name STAR High School The county containing the high school

Grade Span STAR High School Grades taught at the school

School Enrollment STAR High School Number of students in the school

Charter STAR High School Traditional public school or charter

Year Round STAR High School Nine month or year-round school year

Title I STAR High School Federal designation for high-poverty schools

% English Learners STAR High School Percentage of students learning English

% Free Meals STAR High School Percentage of students eligible for free meals

Largest Ethnic Group STAR High School Ethnic group with a plurality of students

% Minority STAR High School Percentage of non-white students

Pupils Per Teacher STAR High School Student-teacher ratio

Pupils Per Administrator STAR High School Student-administrator ratio

Pupils Per SVCS Staff STAR High School Student-service staff ratio (e.g. nurse)

Number Of Teachers STAR High School Number of teachers in the school

FTEs STAR High School Number of full-time employees in the school

% AYP LA Proficient STAR High School Students proficient in language arts

% AYP Math Proficient STAR High School Students proficient in math

District Enrollment STAR District Number of students in the district

ADA STAR District Average daily attendance

Expenditures Per ADA STAR District Money spent per ADA

Revenues per ADA STAR District Money received from government per ADA

Revenue Limit Per ADA STAR District Money cap per ADA

Average Teacher Salary STAR District Average salary of a teacher in the district

% Teachers < 2 years STAR District Teachers who have taught fewer than 2 years

Median Individual Earnings Census County Median earnings for an individual in a county

Median Household Earnings Census County Median household income in a county

Median Household Value Census County Median household value in a county

Density Census County Population density in a county

% AYP LA Proficient + % AYP Math Proficient

API Derived High School 2

Attendance Derived District ADA divided by District Enrollment

8

API School Enrollment Attendance

400

140

100

100

Frequency

Frequency

Frequency

60

60

20

0 20

0

0

0 20 40 60 80 100 0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0 0.4 0.5 0.6 0.7 0.8 0.9 1.0

40 60 80 100

500

60

Frequency

Frequency

Frequency

40

300

20

20

100

0

0

0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0 0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0 W AA AI A F H

400

250

250

100 200 300

Frequency

Frequency

Frequency

150

150

50

50

0

0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0 0.5 0.6 0.7 0.8 0.9 1.0 0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0

800

300

200 400 600 800

400 600

Frequency

Frequency

Frequency

100 200

200

0

0

Figure 3: Histograms showing the distribution of each variable used in the models; W = White,

AA =African American, AI = American Indian, A = Asian, F = Filipino, and H = Hispanic

9

0.4 0.7 1.0 0.0 0.6 0.2 0.6 1.0

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