Student test scores: Let's get the lead out!


Kevin Drum’s long-awaited report: Ever since we learned it was coming, we’ve been looking forward to Kevin Drum’s long-awaited report.

Has the removal of lead from the air driven the steep reductions in crime over the past twenty years? In this post about crime rates in L.A., Drum previews his new report for Mother Jones about the effects of lead removal.

Drum has posted on this topic for years. At some point last year, a terrible thought crept into our heads as we watched the remarkably self-contained children we now see emerge, on a regular basis, from our local elementary school.

Could it possibly be, we wondered. Could it possibly be that the nation’s rising test scores are also tied to lead abatement? Could it be that lead abatement has helped produce those rising test scores—the rising scores your major newspapers simply refuse to report?

Could it be that lead was part of the problem when our test scores were much lower? Last October, in this Wonkblog post, Brad Plumer suggested this possibility.

“Study: Getting rid of lead does wonders for school performance.” That was Plumer’s headline:
PLUMER (10/8/12): Childhood lead levels have been falling steadily in the past decade, according to the Centers on Disease Control, but there’s room to fall further. There are still older houses with deteriorating lead paint. Soils in urban areas contain lead deposits from old vehicle emissions. And thousands of miles of lead water pipe are still in service around the country. It would take money to strip that lead out. But a new NBER paper from economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes suggests that even modest reductions can have out-sized benefits.

Reyes took a look at what happened in Massachusetts during the 1990s, when the state took aggressive steps to strip old paint from homes with children under the age of six—and closely monitored students for lead levels. By scrutinizing state standardized test scores before and after the policies were enacted, Reyes found suggestive evidence that lead abatement had a major impact on school performance...
Could lead abatement be helping to produce improved test scores and lower crime rates? We look forward to reading Drum’s report—and we recommend Plumer’s post.

Tomorrow, another post we didn't get to last year.


  1. There's no doubt that lead abatement is a good thing. However, I doubt that any sort of causal relationship with crime or test scores can be proved, because so many other things are changing at the same time. Even if the rise in test scores or the drop in crime took place at the same time a the lead abatement, that correlation wouldn't necessarily prove causation.

    However, the timing doesn't match perfectly. The switch to unleaded gas started in 1969 and really took effect in 1974. So, fourth graders starting in the early 1980's would have had much less lead in the air than previously. I think the rise in test scores started a decade or so later.

    Note also that College Board scores were dropping during the period when more and more high school juniors and seniors had the benefit of less lead in the air. In 1995 the SAT scale was re-calibrated, because scores had been dropping.

    Now, the drop may have been caused by less-qualified students taking the exam. However, the impact of the lead abatement was insufficient to overcome the effect of less-qualified students sitting for the SAT exam.

  2. The kids in my state can take the CRCT over and over.

    I was dismayed to hear this from a teacher. Surely it skews any attempt to accurately gauge progress. I don't get it.

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