Fact-Checking Linda Darling-Hammond

Bob Braun at the Star-Ledger writes of renowned education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond’s lecture in New Brunswick this week in which she lauds New Jersey’s success in closing the achievement gap among White, Black, and Hispanic students. “She listed measures of success in New Jersey — higher graduation rates, higher test scores, higher national rankings. Darling-Hammond drew gasps of appreciation by noting that, on one national exam, the average scores of black and Latino students in New Jersey were as high as the average scores of all students in her home state, California.”

Let’s put aside graduation rates for the moment (though just for the moment) and look more closely at the data that Darling-Hammond cites. There’s only one national test that NJ and California students take: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, fondly known as the NAEP. And while it’s true that average scores in California for all 4th and 8th graders (the two age groups tested by NAEP) are comparable to average scores for Black and Latino students in NJ, there’s one piece of data missing from Dr. Darling-Hammond's analysis: 53% of California’s students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, the metric for establishing economic disadvantage. In contrast, 31% of NJ’s 4th graders are eligible for free and reduced lunch and 26% of 8th graders are. So the differences in state averages directly correlates with degree of affluence. On average we’re richer here than in California. Our kids score better on tests.

Let’s dig a little deeper. The 4th grade reading results for California show that white 4th graders average 227 points. Black Californians average 27 points lower (200) and Hispanic 4th graders average 31 points lower (196). 4th graders in NJ have a slightly smaller gap. White students in NJ average 237 points. Black and Hispanic NJ 4th graders average 213 (24 points lower). The 8th grade reading test results demonstrate more similar profiles. In California, 8th grade white students average 269, while black 8th graders average a 26 point achievement gap and Hispanic students average a 28 point gap (243 and 241 respectively). In New Jersey white 8th graders average 281 points. Black students average 250 points, a 31 point gap, and Hispanic students average 256, a 25 point gap.

Not much difference. While we can be justifiably proud of our test score averages, we might as well be proud of affluence. Here’s the bottom line from the NAEP commentary:
In 2009, the score gap between students in New Jersey at the 75th percentile and students at the 25th percentile was 41 points. This performance gap was not significantly different from that of 2003 (43 points).
Dr. Darling-Hammond’s lecture was sponsored by the Education Law Center, not a disinterested party. ELC is currently fighting Gov. Christie’s school aid cuts and arguing that the State is obliged to fund poor students at the same rate as rich students, the backbone of the Abbott decisions, now codified in the School Funding Reform Act. Bob Braun writes in the article, “[h]er purpose was to describe how, at least until recently, New Jersey’s dramatic, if expensive, policy of ensuring financial parity in the public schools had actually begun to pay off.” That may well be, but her Exhibit A –the NAEP scores – don’t do much to advance the argument that our system of urban education for impoverished students in NJ has borne much fruit, or at least done much for the achievement gap.

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