Race and Income are Less Significant Factors In Catholic School Student Achievement

City Catholic school students achieve higher scores than public school students on New York State fourth and eighth grade standardized tests, according to a new study commissioned by New York University’s Program on Education and Civil Society, and written by Raymond Domanico, an independent researcher.

The report, ‘Catholic Schools in New York City,’ examined test scores on the State’s fourth and eighth grade exams in English Language Arts and Mathematics in 1999 and 2000. It found that while Catholic schools have a slight advantage over public schools on the grade four exams, dramatic differences can be seen between Catholic and public schools on eighth grade English and math tests.

New York City has the largest concentration of Catholic and public schools in the country. The report compares scores that Catholic school and public school students achieve on the same four exams. As a result, the report surveys the entire population in each sector, not just a representative sample.

“The new state testing program provides us with an opportunity to compare performance using the same test administered at the same time to a large population of students,” said Joseph P. Viteritti, Research Professor at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School for Public Service.

“This study highlights the significant role Catholic schools play in the education of New York City schoolchildren, and provides new evidence to demonstrate that Catholic schools are more effective than public schools in severing the connection between race or income and academic performance,” said Professor Viteritti, who is also co-chair of the University’s Program on Education and Civil Society. The Program, housed at The Wagner School, is a joint research venture with NYU’s School of Education.

The report shows that on the grade four tests, Catholic school students average 9.8 points better in English. In math, scores in Catholic schools are just 6.9 points higher than public schools.

But in grade eight, Catholic school students score 17 points higher on the English exam, and in math the achievement gap widens to 20 points.

Moreover, the report found that students in Catholic schools pass these exams at a higher rate. The pass rate in Catholic schools is about half in both grade four exams and on the grade eight English test. Public school pass rates are lower: just 42 percent on the grade four English test, 32.9 percent on the grade eight math exam, and 46.3 percent in grade four math.

Both Catholic schools and public schools have difficulty with the grade eight math test. Just 35 percent of Catholic school students and 23 percent of public school students pass.

Notably, the study found that the performance of Catholic schools with high concentrations of poor black and Hispanic students surpasses that of public schools with student populations that are less poor and more white or Asian, despite larger teacher-to-student ratios and lower per pupil spending in Catholic schools.

“The performance of poor and minority youngsters in the Catholic schools once again demonstrates the educability of these students,” wrote Raymond Domanico, the author of the report.

“The most important contribution of the Catholic school system – beyond the direct benefits enjoyed by those students enrolled in it – is this demonstration of the dignity and ability of these youngsters,” Mr. Domanico said.

As Mr. Domanico notes, the racial divide in student achievement has been the fault line for all school reform efforts to date. Although a racial divide does exist in the performance of both public and Catholic schools, in Black and Hispanic public school districts, between 24 and 55 percent of students fall into the lowest achievement category on the English and math tests. In neighboring Catholic schools, between 9 and 27 percent of students score at this level.

In the eighth grade Catholic schools that are 90 percent Black or Hispanic achieve levels that are slightly higher than public schools that are 43 percent white or Asian.

Only seven of the city’s 32 community school districts have an average eighth grade English score that is higher than that of Catholic schools with mostly black and Hispanic student populations. No single public school district that is at least 90 percent black or Hispanic scores within 10 points of the black and Hispanic Catholic schools.

Mr. Domanico’s report also splits the two school systems based on family income levels. Data for this examination was only available for Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island.

In these three boroughs, the achievement gap between Catholic and public schools is greater in the very poor districts than it is in the less poor districts. On the eighth grade English exam, the gap between the very poor and the less poor public schools is 18.3 points, almost twice the 9.6 point gap in the Catholic schools.

Catholic schools in less poor districts have 6.5 percent of their students in the lowest level on this exam, almost the same as the 8.9 percent in the very poor districts. Public schools have 19.9 percent of their students in the lowest level in less poor districts and 35 percent in the very poor districts. In fact, in the very poor districts, the percentage of public school students in the lowest score category is equivalent to the pass rate of the Catholic school students.

At least 30,000 city students attend Catholic schools in neighborhoods that are almost entirely non-white and poor. In the eighth grade, the percentage of these students who pass the state tests is about twice that of neighboring public schools. Mr. Domanico concludes that some public school students currently trapped in failing public schools would benefit from a publicly subsidized transfer to local Catholic schools.

While it is unclear exactly how many public school students could be absorbed into the Catholic system, it is clear that the public interest would be harmed by a retrenchment in the city’s Catholic school system. As Catholic schools must now confront challenges – some similar to public schools, such as rising costs while the ability of parents to pay tuition remains low, shortages of teachers and principals, a salary structure much lower than the public system, and a potential student drain from charter schools – the public sector must now weigh the public benefits that Catholic schools provide.

Raymond Domanico is Senior Education Advisor to the Metro NY Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of community organizers who work with parents of public school students on issues of public school improvement. He has twenty years experience in education research, advocacy and evaluation. Mr. Domanico previously served as Executive Director of the Public Education Association and the Center for Educational Innovation and as Director of Data Analysis for the New York City Board of Education.

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