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Did the Recession Hurt Test Scores? A New Study Says Yes. By a Lot.

By Daarel Burnette II — September 25, 2019 2 min read
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Those dramatic budget cuts during the Great Recession that sent waves of layoffs throughout the country significantly hurt academic outcomes for low-income and black children, a new study published by the American Educational Research Association says.

Politicians and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have repeatedly claimed that more money alone can’t ultimately impact academic outcomes, despite growing evidence that it can. The study shows that districts with the most severe budget cuts during the recession that lasted between 2007 and 2010 also had the worst testing outcomes. The study’s release comes shortly after a separate study by Stanford University that shows the achievement gap between black and white students is caused by concentrated poverty.

For the AERA study, researchers studied test scores of students in grades 3-8 in more than 2,500 counties and found that districts with the biggest budget cuts experienced a loss of approximately 25 percent of the expected annual academic gains compared to districts least affected by the recession. This impact was more severe in districts that were majority poor and at least 39 percent black. The researchers studied test scores provided by the Stanford Education Data Archive that allows a comparative analysis of test scores between districts and states.

“Our results reinforce what other recent studies have demonstrated: that there is a link between educational spending and student achievement,” Kenneth Shores, a professor at Pennsylvania State University said in a statement. He conducted the research with Matthew Phillip Steinberg, a professor a professor at George Mason University.

During the recession, sales, income, and property taxes—revenues school districts are heavily reliant on—plummeted, forcing districts to lay off more than 300,000 staff members across the nation.

The timing couldn’t have been worse.

The No Child Left Behind Act, which instituted reading and math goals for schools, was in full swing and states were rolling out the Common Core standards. Many have attributed the lackluster academic outcomes of those initiatives to the lack of funding for state departments that had to implement them and the staff turnover at some of the nation’s most struggling schools.

“Our findings suggest that greater fiscal support should be targeted to schools that not only serve the most vulnerable student populations but that also are located in communities that are the most vulnerable to the adverse consequences of an economic recession,” Steinberg said in the statement.