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Robb: For the last time, Arizona schools don’t stink

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Don’t listen to a recent report that ranked Arizona education poorly. Something good is happening in our classrooms, columnist Robert Robb says, even if we don’t want to talk about it. azcentral.com
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Robert Robb: Despite the lack of funding, Arizona students score at the national average on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

There is no question that Arizona’s K-12 schools receive less funding than other states. I’ve supported an increase in consumption taxes to increase resources available to our schools.

However, too many too frequently make the leap from this uncontestable data to something that just isn’t true: That, compared to other states, Arizona schools are lousy.

The only fair comparison of the states is the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This is a test administered by the federal government to a broad sample of students in every state.

A while back, the claim that Arizona schools stink that could find some grounding In NAEP results. As a whole, Arizona students scored below the national average.

But even then, this was misleading. If the results were disaggregated by demographic groups – comparing whites to whites, Latinos to Latinos, low-income students to low-income students – Arizona results were right at the national average.

These days, there is really no basis for contending that Arizona schools are lousy compared to other states.

Actually, we’re on par with other states

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For the state’s elementary schools, 90 percent of their letter grades could be decided by how well their kids test on AzMERIT, a rigorous annual assessment 38 percent of Arizona students passed last year.
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Matthew Ladner, a scholar with the Charles Koch Institute, was the first to note that Arizona actually leads the nation in gains on the NAEP test.

On fourth-grade results, Arizona still lags somewhat behind the national average for all students. But by eighth grade, our students have caught up, scoring just below the national average on reading and just above it on math. The NAEP administrators characterize the Arizona eighth-grade results as not differing significantly from the national average.

Disaggregating the data by demographic groups show Arizona fourth-grade results near the national average and eighth-grade results generally at or above the national average.

Now, there is a disconnect between the NAEP scores and the disappointing results on the state’s own assessment, AzMERIT. I continue to believe that AzMERIT has set the bar too high, on the dubious assumption that every student should graduate high school prepared for college, and that every student is capable and willing to perform at that level.

But let’s assume AzMERIT measures what we want students to know at each grade level. The results indicate that Arizona schools aren’t performing as well as we would like, not that they stink compared to the schools in other states.

Even lousy schools don’t hurt growth

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Arizona ranks among the lowest states in per pupil spending. How much more must the state spend to match the national average? We do the math.
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There is a related canard that also should be dispelled: that our supposedly lousy schools inhibit economic growth. Occasionally this is buttressed with some anecdote about some businesses refusing to locate in Arizona because our schools stink.

Anecdotes aren’t quantitative evidence and business relocations are a minor part of economic growth.

Quantitatively, there is no correlation between high NAEP scores or education funding and state economic growth, measured by broad indices such as personal income and employment growth.

For example, of the 10 states with the highest scores on NAEP’s eighth-grade reading test, half had personal income growth over the last decade that beat the national average, and half didn’t. Only two had employment growth that bested the national average.

Of the 10 states that scored at the bottom on the test, half also beat the national average for personal income growth. And more states on the bottom than the top beat the national average for employment growth.

Here’s a better argument for more cash

There is even less correlation in spending. Only three of the 10 top-spending states beat the national average on personal income growth and only two beat it for employment growth. More states in the bottom 10 than the top in spending bested the national average in personal income and employment growth.

This is not as counterintuitive as it first seems. In reality, looking at demographic subgroups, there’s not that big of a difference among the states in educational achievement. And adult Americans are highly mobile, often moving between states.

I’ve written a similar column periodically over the years. The need to continue to do so is distressing.

The argument in favor of more money for the schools doesn’t have to depend on the false claim that the schools currently stink. Nor does it have to depend on the equally false claim that the schools are an economic hindrance.

Our school administrators and teachers are holding our educational enterprise together with duct tape. To falsely say that the end result of their efforts is lousy schools compared to other states is as unfair as not giving them adequate resources to do the job in the first place.

Reach Robb at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com.  

MORE FROM ROBB:

Charter school report is a flawed attack on school choice

Funding education at the ballot box is a terrible idea

Governor’s budget misspends on K-12 education

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