November 14, 2007

New data! Judging fairly how well states are doing at educating their children

One of the reasons that so much bilge is spewed about public school performance is that almost all objective data on educational achievement is overwhelmingly dominated by crude racial demographics: the more Non-Asian Minorities (NAMs), the lousier the test scores.

The facts are obvious, boring, and depressing, so people make up silliness to have something to say. For example, here are two smart guys trying to wink out in Morse code the real reason for differences in state test scores without getting Watsoned. As George Will coyly hinted in his obituary for Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

"The Senate's Sisyphus, Moynihan was forever pushing uphill a boulder of inconvenient data. A social scientist trained to distinguish correlation from causation, and a wit, Moynihan puckishly said that a crucial determinant of the quality of American schools is proximity to the Canadian border. The barb in his jest was this: High cognitive outputs correlate not with high per-pupil expenditures but with a high percentage of two-parent families. For that, there was the rough geographical correlation that caused Moynihan to suggest that states trying to improve their students' test scores should move closer to Canada."

S-u-r-e, Dan and George! It must be proximity to Canada!! Everybody knows that playing hockey makes people monogamous and smart!!!

One big problem with this is that we therefore don't have any fair ways to judge the performance of school administrations relative to what they have to work with. Take a look at SAT scores for public schools in Los Angeles County, the nation's largest county. People hear that at San Marino H.S. near Pasadena, 89% of these public school students get over 1000 on the SAT, while at Compton H.S. south of Los Angeles, only 1% crack the 1000 barrier, so they start assuming that San Marino's administration is doing a great job and Compton's a terrible job. Then they come up with brilliant plans like Compton should imitate San Marino and offer fewer remedial courses and more AP courses.

Is this correct? Maybe, but maybe not. After all, San Marino is 70% Asian, and not just any Asians -- it's where Hong Kong zillionaires stash their families in case the Communist hammer comes down too hard on Hong Kong. Compton, in contrast, is all NAMs.

However, if you are willing to work hard enough with the data, you actually can start to remove the overwhelming influence of race and start to get at measuring the schools' value added.

Audacious Epigone takes the best crack I've seen yet at measuring how good a job public schools are doing in each state, by ranking the states on the change in the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores for 4th graders in 2003 versus 8th graders in 2007. (The idea is to look at roughly the same children over four years of schooling. Of course, they aren't exactly the same, and in states undergoing rapid demographic change, such as North Carolina, this could affect the numbers.)

His list is interesting and he may be getting pretty close to measuring the actual performance of the public schools:

The five states that did best at improving test scores from 4th to 8th grade from 2003-2007 are Washington D.C. (even though the public school system there is ferociously criticized), Massachusetts (traditionally, a top performer), North Dakota, Montana, and Maryland.

The bottom five are (from bottom up) West Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut, Michigan, and New Hampshire.

It's fun to see, for once, a ranking of school performance that's not obviously dominated by demographics. Off the top of my head, I can't see what the states at the top have in a common with each other, nor what the states at the bottom share. So, we may actually be finally getting at institutional effectiveness.

Still, demographic change could be biasing this list. So, I'd like to see this same list, but for each race. I suspect that North Carolina's poor performance is driven by heavy Hispanic immigration in this decade, but looking at just white performance could show I'm wrong.

Washington D.C.'s strong performance might be driven by the on-going driving out of African-Americans by immigrants and by white gentrifiers.

It's interesting to look at the two superstates with contrasting reputations for educational effectiveness: Texas, with its positive stereotype, does a little better than average, but still only ranks in 23rd place. California, with its negative stereotype (especially the LAUSD) does a little worse than average, but still only ranks in 36th place. So, the stereotypes are supported, but not dramatically so.

Here's the rest of Audacious Epigone's list.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Positive discrimination in French public sector

Anonymous said...

So can we finally say nice things about Massachusetts? Their math scores are high too.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, here is the link:

Anonymous said...

As a former resident of West Virginia for about a dozen years, I can tell you that your speculation on Audacious Epigone's original post -- namely, that people on the ball are moving out -- has been largely true since World War II, if not earlier. I think I can best illustrate this with an anecdote.

My best friend is a physician in Kentucky. Both her parents were born and raised in West Virginia, but left shortly after they married, first to Pennsylvania, then Michigan, and finally to Kentucky (to a town not far from Louisville). She once told me that so many of her mom's high school class (the school is in the middle of Southern West Virginia coal country) moved north that they wound up holding their reunions in Columbus, Ohio because it was more convenient for everyone involved.

Interestingly, David Hackett Fischer noted in Albion's Seed that the backcountry culture historically had a genuine disdain for book learning. Probably no state is as identified--culturally and ethnically--with the backcountry culture as West Virginia. Contrary to your column in VDARE regarding Utah's lack of diversity, Utah is not the "whitest state that doesn't border Canada"--it's West Virginia. (In decreasing order, the four whitest states are Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, and New Hampshire). West Virginia also has the highest percentage of people who identify their ethnicity on US Census forms as "American", a choice which often coincides with British descent and especially border descent.

In summary, West Virginia's low educational ranking is what you get when you combine a culture with a lingering distrust of advanced learning, a boom-and-bust economy that has historically been dependent on coal and timber in the south and heavy industry in the Ohio Valley, and the pull of more dynamic areas within an easy day's drive.

Anonymous said...

It's fun to see, for once, a ranking of school performance that's not obviously dominated by demographics.

Or student spending - D.C. has one of the highest rates of per student spending, but Connecticut does, too.

Wonder if DC is already losing some of its worst students to the criminal justice system by the time they're in 8th grade?

Contrary to your column in VDARE regarding Utah's lack of diversity, Utah is not the "whitest state that doesn't border Canada"--it's West Virginia.

Utah is getting browner by the minute. Politicians here, especially the Republicans, are big-time supporters of illegal immigration. They get licenses, in-state tuition, and all sorts of other groovy benefits. Mormons aren't as conservative as people like to think - or as I used to think. Logical thinking and belief in the Book of Mormon and other lies of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young don't really go together.

Feel free to leave West Virginia, but hang onto your property. Like so many other chamring, quaint mountain areas it will turn into a playground for the rich soon enough.

Anonymous said...

S-u-r-e, Dan and George! It must be proximity to Canada!! Everybody knows that playing hockey makes people monogamous and smart!!!

Now Steve...

George Will knew Moynihan was saying this tongue-in-cheek. Pointing out the connection between quality family life and academic performance was as far along as Will could go on the IQ/genes axis. The connection is still real and still matters because unlike genes it's one of the few things people can actually do something about.

Given that George Will is (by far) the most widely circulated conservative columnist in the US, it would be a shame to lose him to a PC witch hunt.

Anonymous said...

S-u-r-e, Dan and George! It must be proximity to Canada!!

Moynihan always went by "Pat", never "Dan".

And he followed his own advice. He was born (like Tony Randall) in Tulsa, grew up in Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan, and ended up in the minuscule hamlet of Pindar's Corners on the Susquehanna upstate.