Friday, August 18, 2006


Nebraska did fairly well compared to other states on the recent ACT test, logging an average score of 21.9 out of 36, with 70% of Nebraska's Class of '06 tested.

That compares to a national average score of 21.1, with the average state testing just 40% of its graduates, as shown on www.act.org. The Cornhusker State is in a tie for 12th place, and only Iowa did better among the contiguous states, with a 22.1.

But . . . and this is a big footnote . . . the scores say more about the demographics of the students in a given state, than about the quality of the schools or instruction. In fact, a pretty strong case could be made that Nebraska actually is seriously underachieving, compared to its demographics.

That's because it is well-established that white students do better on standardized tests than students of color, and Nebraska has one of the highest percentages of white students in the country: 78.5%, according to the Nebraska Department of Education's "State of the Schools" report.

Colorado's average score of 20.3 looks a little better when you consider these two things: it has far fewer white students, proportionately, with 63.5%, according to the Colorado Department of Education. And, far in excess of Nebraska's 70% test-taking rate among 2006 grads, Colorado state law requires 100% to take the test.

So Colorado had more minority kids taking the test, and couldn't sweep anybody under the rug and not test them, the way Nebraska and most other states get to do.

See? The scores are pretty much of a demographics horse race, not really a clear picture of the quality that's going on or the value that's being added. And it holds true on the high school level.

The World-Herald listed ACT scores Wednesday for 29 of the largest public high schools. It looked like the Lincoln East (24.4) and Omaha Westside (24.2) kids were the biggest smarty-pantses in the state.

But look again: according to the NDE's "State of the Schools" report, Lincoln East's student population is 92% white, and Westside's is 90%.

Now look at the two high schools who look the "worst" in the table: Omaha South, with an average ACT of 17.3, and Omaha Benson, with 18.8. We aren't told what percentage of the 2006 seniors took the ACT, but it was most likely quite small and represented the best of those two schools. The "best," huh? In comparison, Washington, D.C., often cited as the nation's worst school system, posted an 18.4, with 30% participation.

You have to face it: racial composition had a lot to do with those results. State ed data shows that South's student population is now 36% white, and Benson's stands at 41%.

The World-Herald's table also is suspect for not including the participation rate of the high schools' senior classes. A high score with a low participation rate suggests something very different than a fair to middlin' average with a high participation rate. It has been suspected for years that the high schools are jimmying the numbers to "look good on paper."

What would REALLY help would be if the paper would publish those participation rates -- of seniors, not just college-prep students or those sure to graduate. Also key: the paper used to publish scores of a number of private high schools, which always mooshed the public ones. It would be most helpful to the ongoing discussions of the day, in how to improve education for all demographic groups, if that information were available.

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