How good are New Hampshire's Public Schools? (Great!)

posted Dec 8, 2011, 1:55 PM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Jan 20, 2012, 3:23 AM ]
Below, excerpted from an OpEd by Bill Duncan that appeared in the Concord Monitor on 12/11/11, is a summary of the current debate on school quality.  Below that is a guide to the source data.

Instead of taking pride in our schools, our Republican leadership has been twisting the facts to make us look bad.

House Deputy Speaker Pam Tucker, R-Greenland,

said in the December 4 Seacoast Sunday that our schools are bad because many of our children are performing below grade level.  She used precisely the same erroneous numbers that House Education Committee Chairman, Rep. Michael Balboni, R-Nashua, used to trash our schools in the Nashua Telegraph ( 11/20). 

“The National Assessment of Educational Progress is a standardized national assessment tool used to determine if our public schoolchildren are proficient in reading and math….


“The latest 2011 results clearly show there is a major problem with our New Hampshire public school system. For example, 43 percent of fourth-graders cannot do math at grade level. And the results are worse for eighth-graders, where 56 percent cannot do math at grade level.


“If the math numbers aren’t bad enough, let’s look at the reading results. Fifty-seven percent of fourth-graders cannot read at grade level, and 60 percent of eighth-graders cannot read at grade level.”


This is pure fiction.  The New Hampshire Department of Education web site shows the actual results.

NAEP does not provide  assessments of “grade level” achievement, but rates proficiency levels, from “Basic” to “Proficient” and “Advanced.”  It tests a small sample of children (about 3,000 for each test, out of 200,000 students in New Hampshire) in the middle of the school year, when grade level results could not be tested anyway.  Its purpose is to compare state level performance over time, not to measure student grade level achievement.

And our NAEP results are great!  Along with Massachusetts, New Hampshire’s 4th graders have the highest math performance in the country.  We have

the highest proportion of “Proficient” and “Advanced” students in the country.  And 92% of our students achieve “Basic” or better.  Our 8th graders were third in the country.  We get similar great results in all our tests and even compare well on a world-wide basis.

Actually, the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, is what the state uses to measure students’ grade level achievement in every grade from 3rd to 8th and again in the 11th grade.  Developed specifically for New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine, it is a more challenging and detailed assessment of the student performance. 

New Hampshire is the best performing of the 4 states in most categories almost every year.  In math, for instance, 74% of our 4th graders perform “at or above proficient.”  This has improved from 68% in 2007. In reading, it’s 80%.  Figures for other years are comparably impressive.  Considering that there is a range of capabilities among the children in a given class, this is a remarkable achievement.

So we have a school system to be proud of.  The Legislature should protect and improve it, not denigrate and defund it.  A good place to start would be for our legislative leadership to stop gratuitously trashing our schools.

Here is the starting point, the New Hampshire Department of Educations page that provides a path to all of their information about student and school performance - and to the staff that knows all about it.

Here is a (powerpoint) snapshot of the performance of our public schools over time, by various subgroups of students and based on a wide variety of tests.  It was done in the summer of 2011.

Here is a press release about New Hampshire's 2011 NAEP results.  These are the results Republican leadership is using to make the case that New Hampshire's school system needs to be replaced with private schools.

Here is a page from which you can drill down to view everything you would want to know about every school district and school in New Hampshire.

This page gives access to all of the 2011 NAEP reports.  There are various detailed reports available there.  

However, here is the one page snapshot report from which Republican leadership could have pulled their "bad" performance numbers. The chart in the upper right corner is the most likely source for the "43 percent of fourth-graders cannot do math at grade level" assertion.  But the very same page says, as any national comparison would, that New Hampshire is the best in the country and that 93% of our children perform at the Basic level or above!  

(The 43% figure refers to children below the "Proficient and Advanced" levels, which is like A and A+ performance.  While New Hampshire is the best in the country in this measure, not every child can be expected to get an A.)

On the question of the relationship between "proficient" and "grade level:"

This 2007 paper by Bert D. Stoneberg is the NAEP Program Manager in the Office of the State Board of Education, Idaho, states clearly, using NAEP sources, that "proficient" is not "grade level."

On page 3, he writes:

Achievement Level Booklets. NAGB has published
a series of booklets to inform the general public about
the use and interpretation of NAEP achievement level
scores. Each booklet discusses a separate subject for
which NAEP achievement levels have been established.
These include reading, mathematics, science, writing,
civics, U.S. history, and geography. The following text is
from the reading booklet section entitled How Should
Achievement Levels Be Interpreted, but identical language
appears in all seven booklets:

Achievement levels define performance, not students. Notice
that there is no mention of “at grade level” performance in these
achievement goals. In particular, it is important to understand
clearly that the Proficient achievement level does not refer to “at
grade” performance. Nor is performance at the Proficient level
synonymous with “proficiency” in the subject. That is, students
who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common
usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for
performance at the NAEP achievement level. Further, Basic
achievement is more than minimal competency. Basic
achievement is less than mastery but more than the lowest level
of performance on NAEP. Finally, even the best students you
know may not meet the requirements for Advanced
performance on NAEP. (Loomis & Bourque, 2001b)

Then on page 5, he provide the following table:

So, if there is any useful way to make equivalences, it is that the "Basic" level is roughly equivalent to grade level.

Then in 2009, Andrew Kolstad, Senior Technical Advisor, Assessment Division, National Center for Education Statistics, 2009, said (quoted here):

State assessments often define "proficiency" as solid grade-level performance, often indicating readiness for promotion to the next grade. NAEP’s policy definition of its "Proficient" achievement level is "competency over challenging subject matter" and is implicitly intended to be higher than grade-level performance.

And finally, an October, 2011 article from EdWeek is attached.  Here is what it says about proficiency:

What about NAEP? Oddly, NAEP’s proficient standard has little to do with grade-level performance or even proficiency as most people understand the term. NAEP officials like to think of the assessment standard as “aspirational.” In 2001, long before the current contretemps around state assessments, two experts associated with the National Assessment Governing Board—Mary Lynne Bourque, staff member to the governing board, and Susan Loomis, a member of the board—made it clear that “the proficient achievement level does not refer to ‘at grade’ performance. Nor is performance at the proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject. That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that most state assessments aimed at establishing proficiency as “at grade” produce results different from a NAEP standard in which proficiency does not refer to “at grade” performance or even describe students that most would think of as proficient. Far from supporting the NAEP proficient level as an appropriate benchmark for state assessments, many analysts endorse the NAEP basic level as the more appropriate standard because NAEP’s current standard sets an unreasonably high bar.