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School Poverty and the Frog-pond: How Relative and Absolute Achievement Levels Predict the College Applications of American High School Students

Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

Test score differences between similar students in higher and lower average poverty schools has led advocates to call for economic integration of U.S. schools, theorizing this as a constitutional way to close achievement gaps. However, changing the schooling context of students is likely to lead to frog-pond effects, whereby similar students are judged relative to different peer groups and given different grades for the same levels of performance. Using a nationally representative sample of U.S. high school students, I examine the differences in tested achievement and relative grade point averages of similar students in different school poverty contexts and how these mediate the relationship between school poverty and college applications. I find that while test scores tend to increase for students in lower poverty contexts which is predictive of applying to more selective colleges, being in a lower poverty school decreases one’s relative standing which has a suppressing effect on the selectivity of colleges to which students apply. Relevance to policy is discussed in light of these findings.

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