RALEIGH — Is there any more potent political issue in North Carolina than education? Probably not. As allies of the teachers union, Democrats hope to ride the issue back into power in Raleigh, at least by 2016. As advocates of performance pay and parental choice, Republicans hope to compete effectively with Democrats for the support of voters who value greater education opportunities for North Carolina children.
Depending on the circumstances, both sides can be guilty of rhetorical excess. For example, both sides have sometimes made the claim that North Carolina’s public schools were among the worst in the nation. The claim served their rhetorical needs — as Democrats sought higher taxes to fund school improvement and Republicans sought structural reforms to improve the return on tax money already spent on schools.
But this claim has long been unfounded. So is the alternative claim, sometimes heard from the education establishment, that North Carolina’s schools are among the best in the nation. The truth is more pedestrian than that. You might even find it somnolent. By virtually every measure of student outcomes, North Carolina’s public schools are average.
According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, North Carolina 8th-graders had a mean score of 286 on the math exam and 265 on the reading exam. These scores are statistically indistinguishable from the national average. On the latest 8th grade science exam, given in 2009, North Carolinians scored a 148, not statistically different from the national average of 149. The same was true for the latest writing exam: North Carolina’s average was 153 compared to the national average of 154.
If you look not at average scores but at the share of students demonstrating specific levels of competence, North Carolina still looks about average. On the 2013 reading exam, 33 percent of our 8th-graders were proficient or advanced, 43 percent showed only basic reading skills, and 24 percent lacked even basic skills. For the nation as a whole, 35 percent were proficient or advanced, 42 percent were at basic, and 23 percent were below basic.
Still with me? The 2013 numbers weren’t much different for math. Some 36 percent of North Carolina 8th graders were proficient or advanced, 39 percent were at basic level, and 25 percent were below basic. The national averages were 34 percent, 39 percent, and 27 percent, respectively. (Due to the sample size, differences of a percentage point or two are not statistically significant.)
Does the situation change when students reach high school? We don’t yet have good state-by-state comparisons of student performance as a whole, but for college-bound students taking the SAT, the answer to that question is no. In North Carolina, the mean score of public-school students taking the SAT was 993 in 2013. For the nation as a whole, the mean score for public-school students was 994.
Similarly, although North Carolina public schools have experienced substantial increases in high-school graduation, so have other states. As best I can determine, our state’s high-school graduation rate is within a point or two of the national average.
Perhaps you ought to find North Carolina’s mediocrity interesting. That’s because if it were 30 or 40 years ago, I would be telling you that our state ranked far below average in educational outcomes. According to standardized test scores, the average North Carolina student performs better today in reading, math, and science than ever before.
Careful about turning that fact into a political talking point, however. Some of these improvements reflect the effects of high-performing students moving to North Carolina with their families. And a large majority of the improvements in test scores occurred before the year 2000 — in other words, before Smart Start, More at Four, teacher pay hikes, charter schools, or other much-debated reforms could have made much of a difference in the performance of 8th-graders or high-school students.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation