Columns » Max Brantley

The law of averages

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The Democrat-Gazette loves to banner the news when the Little Rock School District falls below "average" on one standardized test or another. Last week, the five-column headline said Little Rock (and North Little Rock) fell below the national average on a new test of basic skills. Stories on such averages always remind me of the man with one foot in a bucket of ice and the other in a bucket of boiling water. On average, his temperature is about right. As the D-G's excellent education reporters more or less acknowledged down in their story, averages aren't a very good way to judge an unusual school district. The Little Rock District is 70 percent black. Black students, here and everywhere, lag far behind white students in standardized test scores. Little Rock also has a higher percentage of students who live in poverty. Even George W. Bush's underfunded No Child Left Behind program recognizes that an assessment of school district achievement requires a study of subgroups. A new website, www.schoolresults.org, is beginning to offer such information nationwide. It might surprise the bash-Little-Rock crowd. All testing data is not complete, but every Arkansas high school has reported the reading proficiency of 11th graders. How did my kids' high school, Little Rock Central, do? On average, middling. At Central in 2003, 46.6 percent of the students were at or above a proficient level in reading. That's slightly below average against the nation, but somewhat better than the 42.2 percent figure for all Arkansas students. It compares poorly, however, with the averages for the suburban schools to which many white families have fled and with the heavily white high schools of prosperous Northwest Arkansas. Or does it? Following are some comparisons of several high schools, with the percentage scoring proficient in reading broken down by race. Where NA is given, there are too few black students to provide a meaningful figure.
School    Overall  White  Blacks  
LR Central46.677.418.7
Bentonville68.472.1NA
Bryant64.766.3NA
Cabot47.750.2NA
Conway47.553.829.2
So there. A white Central kid reads better than other white kids. Central's black kids are significantly outperformed in Conway, though Central blacks score above the state average of 16.8 percent. Even these conclusions are unfair, of course, without taking home situations into account. Never mind fairness. The people obsessed with school testing intend such data to provide the basis to "fail" schools when any subgroup doesn't perform up to standard. It won't matter that, in the case of black students, there's been a universal failure to close the racial gap. The final goal is to justify vouchers or their functional equivalent, unproven charter schools run by private organizations with tax dollars. You can be sure most of the "new" schools won't target the tired and poor and homeless. A new Little Rock charter school chose West Little Rock as its home and wealthy Chenal Valley as a prime recruiting target. This shell game will enrich some charter school operators and might even help a few kids Tens of thousands more needy students will be starved of resources. On average for the public school haters, that will be just about right.

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