Given that Minnesota is home to Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average, results announced this week by the National Assessment for Educational Progress were only to be expected — or so you would think, judging by the lyrical response from the local press.
“Minnesota’s kids really are above average,” warbled the Star-Tribune in its headline Wednesday morning. All right, I know reporters don’t write their own headlines, but the story was scarcely less gushy.
“When it comes to math and reading, Minnesota students are way above the national average. . . . Results released Tuesday show Minnesota ranks second nationwide for eighth-grade math, fifth for fourth-grade math, tied for sixth in eighth-grade reading and tied for ninth in fourth-grade reading.”
How can I break the news to them gently? NAEP’s lovely interactive maps show that the crucial fact is that Minnesota students are . . . way whiter than average.
Every two years, the NAEP tests a national sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and mathematics (see http://nationsreportcard.gov/ for details). White and Asian students score significantly higher on this and similar tests, and so do more affluent students. The reasons are hotly debated, as are the potential solutions, but that is a different debate.
Results are reported as scaled scores on a single yardstick, so that, for instance, the average score for fourth grade reading is 220 and for eighth grade reading 261 (math, 239 and 280, respectively).
Scaled scores for black and Hispanic students are 25 to 30 points lower than for white students, depending on the test. Those are big differences, the equivalent of two to three grades — the visible sign of the achievement gap you hear so much about.
NAEP’s charts show states as green if they’re above average, yellow if they are not statistically different from average, and red if they are below average. Overall, Minnesota is refreshingly green on all four tests.
But look at black students separately, and Minnesota is dull yellow average on all four tests. Likewise, it is average for Hispanic students on all four tests. For white students, it is above average statistically on three of the four, but by only a few points. The state owes its high ranking primarily to the fact that it draws a larger proportion of its students from groups that on average score higher.
The preening of officials notwithstanding, the weather probably deserves more credit for state outcomes than they do.