Deeper discussion needed on schools

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RALEIGH — Massachusetts has consistently been at or near the top of the list in reading and math achievement, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This is a fact. The policy implications are less straightforward.

Progressives observe that Massachusetts is a blue state that ranks seventh in the nation in public-school expenditure, averaging about $17,300 per pupil (as of 2016). By the same measure, North Carolina is below the national average, at just under $9,000 per student. Our test scores are, for the most part, at the national average.

Conservatives, while recognizing and admiring the high level of achievement in Massachusetts, point out complexities. They note, for example, that the composition of the test-taking population clearly affects a state’s average score. States with relatively low poverty rates tend to populate the top third of the student-achievement list. High-poverty states tend to populate the bottom third.

If we look at the 2017 NAEP reading and math scores just for eighth-grade students with household incomes low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price school lunches, Massachusetts still fares well. It’s one of only eight states — along with Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming — where low-income students outperform the national average (to a statistically significant degree) in both subjects.

What do these states have in common? Neither partisan politics nor fiscal policies, as it happens. Four of the eight are completely red states, and five have Republican legislatures. Indiana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana spend less per-pupil than the national average (although not by much in the latter two).

Among the eight, Massachusetts remains the leader in math after narrowing the focus to low-income students. But in reading, the top performer for disadvantaged students is Indiana, a Republican state that ranks 49th in spending and earns conservative plaudits for its policies on parental choice, charter schools and performance-based teacher compensation.

I’m not going to argue that the Indiana findings, or the latest NAEP scores in general, represent causal evidence in favor of conservative education policies. They don’t, at least not based on a first glance at raw data. My point is that the raw data don’t represent causal evidence in either direction.

Test scores are critical information for policymakers. To put them to effective use, however, requires careful analysis and thoughtful interpretation.

I have long argued that North Carolina ought to aspire to getting 90 percent of our students to the “basic” level on NAEP reading and math tests, and at least 50 percent of our students to the “proficient” level. If we achieved those goals, that would rank us among the top-performing education systems in the world. It turns out that Massachusetts is almost there — about half of its eighth-graders are proficient in reading and math, although a bit more than 10 percent of its kids continue to lack basic skills.

Still, it will clearly be more difficult to reach those goals in North Carolina, where 47 percent of eighth-graders are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, than in Massachusetts, where 25 percent are.

That’s an explanation, not an excuse. We owe it to future generations to set high expectations for all students and help them reach the goal. What I am saying is that we can learn policy lessons from a variety of high-performing states (and nations), including the Indianas and Idahos where rates of student disadvantage aren’t so dissimilar from ours.

As a fiscal conservative, I support the General Assembly’s recent practice of prioritizing teacher pay — especially with increases designed to attract and retain high performers — while keeping overall state spending growth under control. I also favor changes in personnel, curriculum and student-assignment policies that promote academic rigor, parental choice and innovation.

I favor them because my reading of studies that properly adjust for student characteristics suggests these policies will enhance student learning. Most such studies also show no consistent correlation between public expenditure and student achievement. So, let’s talk about more than Massachusetts and budget math. Let’s go deeper.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “N.C. Spin,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.