Math skills needed to climb the economic ladder

economic ladder

With all the headlines about students opting-out of testing it appears there is an assumption that test scores have no connection to a student’s future success. There is certainly room to debate how much testing students should be taking and what role test results should play in student, teacher, and school accountability but it can’t be ignored that the test scores do in fact matter. No, test results are not a perfect measure of a student’s actual knowledge and skills but perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. That is, test scores are a good measure of a student’s knowledge and skills and the new Common Core tests appear to be an even more accurate measure than previous state assessments that at best were good measures of basic skills.

But does it really matter how students perform on a test? Yes, especially for students from the most economically disadvantaged families. If they want to climb up the economic ladder they better perform well on their math tests. When I examined the impact of the math scores of 2004 seniors who took part in the Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS) I found that those students who came from families at the bottom quartile of socioeconomic status (SES) were more likely to move up the economic ladder, the better they performed on the ELS math assessment. For example, just 5 percent of low-SES students who scored within the lowest quartile on the math assessment moved up to the highest quartile in SES by 2012. On the other hand, 36 percent of low-SES students who had scored within the top quartile on the math assessment climbed to the top of the SES ladder by 2012. Moreover, nearly half of low-SES students remained in the lowest SES quartile in 2012 if they also scored among the lowest quartile on the math assessment. Yet, only 11 percent of low-SES students who scored among the top quartile on the math assessment remained low-SES in 2012.

Taken together this provides strong evidence that economically disadvantaged students can improve their chances of moving up the economic ladder by performing well on math tests. On the other hand, low-performance on math tests will likely lead to continued economic challenges in their adult lives.

Of course, it is not simply improving test scores that enable economically disadvantaged students to move up the economic ladder, it is the skills the higher test scores represent. As CPE’s reports on getting into and succeeding in college showed, obtaining higher math skills leads to greater success in college. Furthermore, an upcoming CPE report will also show that higher math skills also increases the chances non-college enrollees will get a good job and contribute to society as well. So there is strong evidence that increasing a student’s math knowledge, as measured by standardized tests, gives economically disadvantaged students the tools they need to climb up the economic ladder. –Jim Hull

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