High School Socioeconomic Segregation and Student Attainment

Issue/Topic: Desegregation; Student Achievement--Closing the Achievement Gap
Author(s): Palardy, Gregory
Publication: American Educational Research Journal
Published On: 3/26/2013

Resegregation has been more pronounced along socioeconomic lines than racial lines. Even as neighborhoods have integrated racially, neighborhoods and schools have become increasingly segregated by socioeconomic status (SES). Exacerbating the matter, the earnings gap between low- and high-income families increased approximately threefold during the half century after Brown V. Board of Education.

To examine the associations between socioeconomic composition (SEC) and attainment measured at two critical transitions—high school graduation and college enrollment—and to investigate school mechanisms that mediate those associations


Question 1 To what degree do student attainment, academic and family background, and school factors vary in low, medium, and high SEC schools?

  • Compared with students attending high SEC schools, students at low SEC schools had, on average, lower GPAs for academic coursework and lower math/reading achievement test scores.
  • Principals at low SEC schools were far more likely to report that learning is hindered by poor facilities and inadequate equipment.
  • School practices also differed by SEC groups. Students at low SEC schools were comparatively far less likely to take advanced math coursework, and low SEC schools tended to deemphasize academics. In addition, students tended to have more negative peer influences. For example, students at low SEC schools were more than 50% more likely to have a friend who dropped out of high school.
Question 2 What is the total effect of SEC on each attainment outcome and to what degree do student factors, peer influences, and school effects mediate the SEC-attainment associations?

  • Individual peer influence measures were robust predictors of attainment.  Peer influences tended to have stronger mediating effects on the SEC-attainment associations than school inputs and school practices combined, (the minor exception being for 4-year college enrollment).
  • School practices accounted for 24% of the total SEC-4-year college enrollment association.
  • Students who attended a high SEC school had a 68% higher probability of enrolling in a 4-year college than students who attended a low SEC school.

Question 3 Is the effect of SEC consistent for students from different SES and ethnic backgrounds?

  • The associations between SES and attainment and between underrepresented minority and attainment were consistent.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:

  • Peer influences are a critical mechanism through which SEC affects attainment.
  • Emphasizing school practices that promote academics and high teacher morale will have positive effects on 4-year college enrollment for students attending low SEC schools.  However, previous research suggests that strong social support must coincide with the emphasis on academics if it is to be effective in the low SEC setting.  Furthermore, improving social relations among school personnel may be necessary.
  • Academic press, which measures the school’s emphasis on academics, was a significant predictor of academic achievement and academic engagement and had an especially powerful effect in low SEC schools when coupled with appropriate social support.
  • Only one school practice was associated with high school graduation: mean Carnegie units earned.  Students who attended schools with higher mean Carnegie unit production were significantly more likely to graduate. Practices and policies that improve Carnegie unit production could improve graduation rates.
  • Integrating schools is likely necessary for addressing the negative effect of being segregated in a low SEC school.
  • State and federal governments must provide leadership, including overcoming structural barriers to increasing low-income housing development in high-income neighborhoods and redrawing school boundaries to maximize diversity.  Providing financial incentives such as grants for new initiatives, support for transportation, and funding for feasibility studies and for programs that facilitate interdistrict school choice may be necessary.
  • Optimizing school inputs and practices to mediate socioeconomic segregation may require first improving the educational environment at low SEC schools given that substantial differences in teacher salary, quality of facilities and equipment, school safety, classroom disruption, and school disorder may interfere with the implementation of optimal practices at low SEC schools.  
For the full text: http://aer.sagepub.com/content/50/4/714.full.pdf+html

Research Design:
Statistical analysis

Student participants in the Education Longitudinal Study (ELS) were surveyed in the spring of their 10th grade year (2002), the spring of their 12th grade year (2004), and 2 years after their expected graduation (2006), and high school transcripts were collected a year after their expected graduation date (2005).

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
Used subsamples from the ELS, a survey of 2002 high school sophomores conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.


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