Is Rochester the worst?

That question gets debated quite a bit around these parts. I took a shot at answering it in 2018 and concluded that the Rochester City School District is probably the lowest-performing school district in New York (Hempstead is the main “competition”) and at least in the conversation for the worst in the country.

There are enough complicating factors with this sort of question to make a definitive answer impossible. The main one, of course, is: what does that even mean? I proposed a new way of answering the question a few years ago with the New York School Quality Index. Inevitably, though, the easiest way to approach it is with test score data. The largest national database, the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University, just updated its massive data set this week.

The upshot for Rochester, circled in red, is predictable by now (lower on the y-axis is worse test scores; left on the x-axis is poorer):

One common immediate reaction to a graph of this sort is to break out a micrometer and see whether the Rochester is the lowest or simply among them. This, I believe, is a pointless exercise that entirely mis-frames the question. In my opinion, the almost inexorable trendline for all of these school districts as it relates to performance (as measured here) and socioeconomic status is more important than whether Rochester ought to be two centimeters higher, inconspicuous within the poverty peloton.

The point, in other words, is not that Rochester is the worst of the worst, but instead that any American adult can easily and accurately predict which school districts will fall into that “worst” subcategory simply by observing the number of poor and Black students. We take this correlation for granted, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The first step toward change in my opinion is understanding the history and systems that affected those districts so intensely. Those, of course, are racism and segregation.

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