ETS Study Examines Collision of Poverty and Education

More than one in five children in the United States live in poverty, and a new report by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) documents the devastating effect this crisis has on educational achievement.

Achievement gaps have continued to grow as the gulf between the richest and the poorest American families has widened, according to the reportPoverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward.” ETS is a nonprofit that develops, administers and scores tests and conducts educational research, analysis and policy studies. Richard J. Coley, executive director of the Center for Research on Human Capital and Education and Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, authored the report.

“While education has been envisioned as the great equalizer, this promise has been more myth than reality,” says Baker. “Not only is the achievement gap between the poor and the non-poor twice as large as the achievement gap between black and white students, but tracked differences in the cognitive performances of students in every age group show substantial differences by income or poverty status.”

The report spotlights an analysis of the average 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores for students in the fourth and eighth grades. Fourth-graders who were eligible for free lunch scored 29 points lower than those not eligible. Similar results were seen in eighth grade, where students eligible for free lunch scored 25 points lower.


The ETS report also tracks the relationship between household incomes and SAT critical reading scores for seniors in 2012, data that demonstrates a strong relationship between the two measures. Seniors with a family income of less than $20,000 scored about 80 points lower than those with a household income between $80,000- $100,000.

In addition, among the world’s 35 wealthiest countries, the United States is second only to Romania in child poverty rates. Twenty-two percent of American children live at or below the poverty line. The federal poverty rate for a family of four is $23,021, and this does not take into account differences in the cost-of-living across regions. Of the children in poverty, 4 percent – or 2.8 million children – are living in extreme poverty, classified as living on $2 or less of income per person per day in a given month.

The report criticizes several education policies, such as test-based accountability systems and using students’ scores on standardized tests in teacher evaluations, as doing little to help close income-related achievement gaps. ETS instead offers seven strategies to reduce the influence poverty has on education in areas it thinks are within the purview of policymakers.

  • Increase awareness of the incidence of poverty and its consequences.
  • Equitably and adequately fund schools through better coordination of federal and state education programs.
  • Broaden access to high-quality preschool education.
  • Reduce ethnic and economic segregation and isolation.
  • Adopt school practices proven to be effective such as reducing class sizes, longer school days and years and tutoring.
  • Recognize the importance of high-quality educators by attracting and keeping quality teachers in high-poverty classrooms.
  • Improve the measurement of poverty by including government spending directed at low-income families and recognize the cost-of-living differences across regions.