Could an exposure to lead in Flint, MI’s drinking water cause a drop in test scores? Some are claiming that, and if any city could point to that as a possible cause it would be Flint. The data does not appear to back that up, however.
In 2015, drinking water in Flint was found to have elevated levels of lead, which is known to impair cognitive development in children, especially children under 5.
“Even the very lowest levels of exposure, we know that lead erodes a child’s IQ, shortens attention span and disrupts their behavior,” Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and the dean for global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told The New Republic. “We know when we do follow-up studies that children exposed when they were kids are more likely to be dyslexic, have behavioral problems and get in trouble with the law. There’s no question about that.”
The number of Flint children with elevated levels of lead doubled after the city in 2014 switched its source of drinking water from the Detroit system to the Flint River to save money. In some neighborhoods, the number of children testing for elevated lead levels more than tripled.
But lead levels in Flint children have actually declined over the past 20 years, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. In 1998, half of all children six years of age and under had elevated lead levels in their blood. At the peak of the 2015 crisis, roughly 5 percent of children in the city showed elevated lead levels in their blood.
Bilal Tawwab, superintendent of Flint Community Schools, says he isn’t sure the lead is the primary cause the precipitous drop in test scores.
Tawwab took over the school district in 2015, just as the lead crisis was coming to light, and one of his first actions was to “cut off the water” and begin distributing bottled water to drink in schools. But he says that shifts in how the state measures educational assessment — and a district that has struggled for decades — are both significant factors in the recent test scores.
“First of all the assessment changed, and you have to account for that. I knew that coming into Flint that the achievement in reading and math were challenges,” Tawwab says.
Michigan changed the exam used to test student reading in 2015 to an exam more aligned with national Common Core standards. Reading scores across the state fell as a result, from 77 percent proficiency in reading to 40 percent.
If there were a higher percentage of kids showing elevated lead levels in their blood I think the Flint school district could point to lead as the culprit. Flint, like the rest of the state, saw their scores drop like a rock. Instead of lead, the more likely culprit is a poor state assessment and poor standards.