Lower income equals lower test scores in our schools

A Daily Herald and WBEZ analysis shows the devastating effect of poverty in Illinois classrooms

Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series looking at poverty and education in Illinois.

In the rhetoric of the American dream, the road to success is paved with hard work and determination. The situation children are born into should not determine how well they do in school or life.

The reality of Illinois' education system tells a different story.

A new analysis of a decade of state testing data by the Daily Herald and WBEZ reveals that a school's low-income level is a frustratingly accurate predictor of achievement.

The results are clear.

Schools with the fewest low-income students score the highest on average.

As the percentage of low-income students goes up, the test scores go down. The pattern holds true at every income level, every year.

Over the next four days, our Generations at Risk series will introduce a new way to measure schools through the lens of income: the Poverty-Achievement Index.

We will explore why the ties between income and achievement are so deep-rooted and hard to overcome.

We will also look at where poverty has shifted in Illinois, including suburbs where the number of low-income students has skyrocketed.

We will take you inside two suburban schools that are beating the odds.

And, we will talk to policymakers about how to create more opportunities for all our students.

Generations at risk

  Asa Arreola, a former student at Sunny Hill Elementary in Carpentersville, is now studying biological sciences at DePaul University and hopes to become a doctor. He regularly goes back to his suburban school, where more than 90 percent of students are low-income, to talk to the children about overcoming hardships. Brian Hill/

Asa Arreola never knew he was poor. As a child in Carpentersville he bunked with his grandmother because his mother, a single parent, worked long hours. His grandparents didn't speak English and couldn't help him with homework.

But at tiny Sunny Hill Elementary School his life looked like everybody else's - they spoke Spanish at home and had parents who were preoccupied with providing shelter and food. He saw his friends, at 12 or 14, already start to work in their families' landscaping businesses.

Then he got to Barrington High School, where for the first time he realized there were other kinds of lives - middle class and even affluent lives. Arreola had returned to his mother by then - trusted to be home alone, to cook his own meals, to stay on schedule and be independent. It was hard.

“It made me stronger,” Arreola says now of his experiences. He just finished his freshman year at DePaul University, where he is majoring in biological sciences and eventually wants to be a surgeon.

“You realize how much people take for granted and how you've got to hold on to what you've got.”

He also realizes, despite his personal success, how hard it is for poor children to achieve the same basic things as middle-class children.

“Money and income really do affect certain things,” says Arreola. “I don't like to play the whole socioeconomic card, but people see a Latino with less money and they think less of them, so I have to work harder to prove I can be a good part of society.”

Not every low-income student is as mature, or as gifted, as Arreola was in his formative years. But there are more low-income kids in Illinois schools today than ever before, and according to the Daily Herald/WBEZ analysis, most of them are failing the state's standardized tests.

Illinois Superintendent of Education Tony Smith Associated Press

“You can't tell me that only kids in high-wealth, white neighborhoods have the college DNA - that's ridiculous,” said State Superintendent Tony Smith, recently appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner. “There's something about how we're structured that is sorting opportunity. We're wasting massive, massive human potential by not figuring out a way to increase access and support for all of our kids.”

Low-income population climbs

How poverty affects schools - and how well schools educate low-income children - are vital questions for Illinois. The population of low-income students in Illinois has climbed steadily. For the first time in 2014, more than half - 51.5 percent - of Illinois public school kids were considered low-income, up from 39 percent a decade ago. And the number of schools grappling with highly concentrated poverty has ballooned in the last decade.

What the Daily Herald/WBEZ Poverty-Achievement Index shows is a shocking correlation between low-income students and academic achievement. In the past decade, the schools with the highest number of poor students always finish at the bottom, the schools with the fewest poor students are at the top, and every other group is stratified in the middle. High school standardized test scores show the exact same trend.

When the state raised the minimum passing scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test - which tests third through eighth graders in reading and mathematics and grades 4 and 7 in science - scores dropped across the board, but the stratification stayed constant.

To researchers, this indicates a cycle of failure that has dire consequences for everyone.

“As Americans, we love to think of ourselves as living in the land of opportunity - a country where anyone who works hard can make it,” said Natasha Ushomirsky, a data and policy analyst at The Education Trust, a nonprofit that promotes academic equality, especially for students of color and those living in poverty.

But, Ushomirsky says, the educational opportunities for affluent and poor kids are anything but equal.

“The resulting relationship between schools' poverty rates and achievement (flies) in the face of our national values,” she asserts.

Robin Steans, executive director at advocacy group Advance Illinois, said the future of poor students matters for everyone.

“We can either get it right on the front end or we're going to need to support them as a society,” she said. “It is easy for people to look around and say they are comfortable with their schools and that their schools are doing well, but one way or another we all pay for it when we leave kids behind.”

The Poverty-Achievement Index

The index groups schools with similar percentages of low-income students and compares their academic performance within that group. It also shows how the performance of each income group compares with the others.

Statistically, a PAI score of zero means a school is performing average for its income range. Anything above zero means that school is doing better than the average; a school scoring below zero is doing worse.

Researchers say many factors play into student success - language, race, student growth, expectations, having role models - but income is a vital statistic.

“Taking into account the income of students is incredibly important,” said Kelly Jones, senior managing director of partnerships at Teach for America, a nationwide initiative that recruits young people to commit two years to teaching in impoverished school districts. “That needs to be part of understanding the full context of who these students are and what specific challenges they face.”

“If you are using test score data in order to determine the effectiveness of the school, you have to take those kinds of demographics into account,” agrees Michael Petrilli, executive director from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an ideologically conservative education policy think tank.

The Poverty-Achievement Index also reveals an unexpected bright side - the low-income schools that are overachieving and managing to score significantly higher than what would be expected. Like:

John Jay Elementary School in Mount Prospect, where 83 percent of students are low-income, had 55.1 percent of kids meet or exceed state standards last year. That's below the statewide average, but impressive in their income group, which averaged only 42.5 percent.

In 2014, all schools in Carol Stream Elementary District 93 scored above average within their income groups, which range from 25 to 55 percent low income.

South Elementary School in Des Plaines, which in 2014 had 71 percent low-income, 63 percent minority and 53 percent English language learners - also had 71.6 percent of kids make the grade. The average in that income group was 47.2.

See how your schools measure up at

Schools can compare themselves to other like schools all the way up the income spectrum. Even in the strata of least low income - 0-9.9 percent, where 84 percent of students on average either met or exceeded state standards in 2014 - schools fall on both sides of the average.

Another surprise: Chicago Public Schools rises above its reputation under the lens of income. Two-thirds of Chicago elementary schools had a positive score on the Poverty-Achievement Index in 2014. A decade ago, just half of city grammar schools had positive scores. And over time, of the 100 schools in the state with the best cumulative Poverty-Achievement Index scores - schools that year after year do better than expected given their poverty rate - 55 are in CPS.

Poverty moves to the suburbs

Today there are more than 1 million low-income students in Illinois.

“Low-income” status is determined by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch at school. That figure was $43,568 for a family of four in 2013-14.

The Daily Herald/WBEZ analysis shows that the location of low-income families has shifted in the last decade.

In 2004, more than 45 percent of low-income public school students in Illinois attended Chicago Public Schools. Today it's 32 percent, and falling.

There are 29,000 fewer low-income kids in CPS than there were a decade ago.

Meanwhile, on average Illinois school districts have seen a 15 percentage point increase in their low-income populations.

Statewide, 2,244 schools saw their low-income populations rise by 10 percentage points or more, while only 61 schools saw a decrease, according to our analysis.

In Elgin Area Unit District U-46, the number of low-income students has nearly doubled in 10 years. U-46 now has 24,003 low-income students, more than any school system outside of Chicago. Ten years ago the Rockford Public Schools were #2.

In 2004, Indian Prairie Unit District 204 - in Naperville, Aurora and Bolingbrook - enrolled 780 low-income kids out of 26,147 students total, just 3 percent of its student body. Today District 204 has 5,088 low-income kids, 18 percent of all students. The district is 20th in Illinois for the number of low-income students it serves; a decade ago, it was not in the top 100.

Joyce Kilmer Elementary School in Buffalo Grove was 10.5 percent low-income in 2004. A decade later, 63 percent of its students are low-income and as a whole, Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 is educating more than twice the number of poor students - up from 2,086 to 4,209 - than it had 10 years ago.

Jason Klein, chief information officer at District 21, said when he started teaching at London Middle School in Wheeling in 1998 the low-income rate was below 15 percent. The school considered that high.

“That's nothing compared to what we see today,” he said. In 2014, London was 53 percent low-income. “I think there has been a significant shift. We see it with low-income numbers, with homelessness numbers and with the challenges our students bring to school.”

The shifting demographics have been hard for suburban districts that historically are not used to dealing with large populations of low-income students. Klein said it will take time for school districts to catch up.

“There's often a lag between when a school or district's demographics change and when the staff and community realizes that it's changed,” he said. “People in the suburbs may not realize the range of conditions of people living around them.”

That's a problem some suburban educators are trying to fix.

“We've got to lift up every student, that's the challenge,” said Ken Ender, president of Harper College in Palatine. Ten years ago only six schools in the Northwest suburbs were more than 50 percent low-income. Today, that number is 30. Harper has assigned ambassadors to each of those 30 schools to work with students and try to get them on a path toward college.

“I don't see a bright future for us, our kids and our grandkids if we can't bring everybody along,” Ender said. “The stakes are very high.”

The causes behind the shifts in poverty are layered.

“Ten years ago we couldn't have guessed what the impact of the recession would be and that it impacted people across the socioeconomic spectrum,” Klein said. “It really threw people in a lot of different circumstances for a loop.”

The changing U.S. economy is also a factor, Ender said. Jobs that used to require only a high school diploma and hard work are rare if not nonexistent and students now need some kind of postsecondary training for nearly every career.

“The world changed and we weren't paying attention,” he said. “The requirements for a good job changed and we kept acting as if the people who historically got jobs without education would be OK.”

Meanwhile, the number of concentrated high-poverty schools in Illinois - where nearly every child is considered low-income - has swelled, from 421 schools in 2004 to 649 in 2014. The Daily Herald/WBEZ analysis shows that 17 percent of all public school students in the state now attend schools where 90-100 percent of students are low-income.

Today, American society is more segregated by income than by race, said Greg Duncan, professor of economics and education at University of California-Irvine. Citing several studies, he said that contributes to growing achievement gaps between affluent and poor students.

Compared to a generation ago, “low-income kids are more likely to have low-income neighbors, high-income kids high-income neighbors,”says Duncan.

Duncan said what that means for schools is “troubling.”

In 1970, 65 percent of Americans lived in neighborhoods that could be described as middle income; today that number is 42 percent, according to a study from Cornell and Stanford universities. In that time, the share of Americans living in extreme poverty or wealth grew from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent.

“Having a mixture of income brings a lot of benefits for low-income kids,” Duncan said. “Because the (higher-income) parents are bringing higher levels of education, they may be more demanding about the teaching and other kinds of standards in the schools.”

Why poverty matters

Researchers and advocates for poor students say there are lots of reasons why poverty and lack of achievement are so tightly linked.

“One has to do with the things money can buy,” says Larry Joseph, director of research at Voices for Illinois Children, which advocates for all children through education, health care and family economics.

“More affluent families can invest more resources in their children's development ... health care, adequate nutrition, early learning opportunities, home computers, dance lessons, summer camp and safe and supportive neighborhoods,” he said. “And access to higher quality schools.”

Poverty takes an emotional toll, too, that affects academics. Unstable employment and financial insecurity increase family stress, which hurts the quality of parenting and family relationships and puts stress on children who otherwise would be focusing their energy on learning, Joseph said.

Achievement gaps between poor and middle-class students are present even before kids get to school.

“Some students don't have early childhood education and they are coming into kindergarten already behind,” says Robin Steans, executive director at Advance Illinois, a group working to drive more dollars to low-income students and schools. “They haven't had exposure to letters, numbers or how to navigate a classroom, how to sit still, how to work cooperatively with others. All of which makes it harder for them to catch up.”

Getting to school can be a challenge in and of itself - from difficulty affording transportation to not having a safe passage to walk to school, said Elaine Allensworth, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago.

“In the poorest areas of the city you also have students more likely to be exposed to traumatic events, to violence, to having issues with housing instability,” Allensworth said. “These are really, really stressful events for kids.”

Domestic violence, unstable families, homelessness, language barriers and high-mobility may also come into play.

The mixture of challenges that each student faces before he or she sits down in a classroom can weigh heavily on schools.

“Low-income students need more support from school in a lot of ways, all of which cost money,” Steans said.

As much as poverty is a strong indicator of success or failure, the few exceptions, like Asa Arreola, show there is hope. Advocates say we have to find a way to replicate those examples on a larger scale.

  Asa Arreola, a former student at Sunny Hill Elementary in Carpentersville, is now studying biological sciences at DePaul University and hopes to become a doctor. He regularly goes back to his suburban school, where more than 90 percent of students are low-income, to talk to the children about overcoming hardships. Brian Hill/

Arreola, who found important role models among the Sunny Hill staff, makes it a point to return occasionally to share with kids what he's learned on his journey.

“I tell them that they need the courage to keep on fighting, even when things get really hard. They need to just keep on moving,” he says.

As a child living with his grandparents, he would see his mother for a few minutes before he went to bed each night. She always told him the two most important things in his life were a good education and a loving family.

Arreola keeps those lessons in mind every day.

“Education has been my only goal,” he said. “I'd always hoped that if I studied hard, did well, maybe I could have a little money and take care of my family. And, if I ever have kids, maybe they don't have to grow up like I did.”

<i> Graphics and data analysis by Daily Herald presentation editor Tim Broderick</i>

A challenge we cannot ignore

How one poor school in Carpentersville is making big gains on tests

How middle school went from chaos to changing lives

How do we get more success stories at poor schools?

Illinois education leader: We are judging schools wrong

Generations at Risk

Part 2:How one Carpentersville school with 94% low-income is nevertheless making the grade.

See story.

Part 3: Tefft Middle School in Streamwood has transformed itself out of “chaos” and academic failure to a nationally recognized breakthrough school, through discipline, structure and accountability for students, teachers and parents alike.

See story.

Part 4:

Read a Q and A with new State Superintendent Tony Smith about the changes necessary for Illinois schools to break through the income barrier. Find out what Illinois policymakers say we should do to make education more equal for all students.

See story.

Find your schools: Our interactive data presentation lets you look up your school, see how it ranks with other. Check it out at

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