Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Not so good news: Nebraska students average a mediocre 22.1 on a 36-point scale on this year's ACT college admissions test. The national average is 21.1, so we're not really doing such an impressive job after all.

And that's even though the percentage of low-income and minority students that we have taking the ACT in Nebraska is much lower than in other states. Only about 4% of this year's test pool in Nebraska are African-Americans, for example.

So much for the myth that ghetto kids' test scores are dragging down our statewide averages. We already know that there's a huge racial achievement gap in Nebraska, but the net effect of low scores among 4% of the population is not enough to hurt our statewide average that much.

We also know that over 50% of African-American students in Nebraska are dropping out of high school before graduation. So they're not even taking the ACT because college isn't even in the realm of possibility for them. And from about Grades 8-11, reportedly they are severely under-represented in the higher-level high school courses that prepare a student to excel on the ACT, anyway.

So technically, our statewide, all-race average should be much, much higher than a 22.1. Frankly, a potato should be able to make that score after sitting in our taxpayer-supplied classrooms from kindergarten through the middle of 11th grade, at a cost well in excess of $100,000 per pupil.

Then there's the whole question of how much school spending is going up every year in Nebraska, and yet we are falling closer and closer to the national average in test scores. Given our advantages, we should be advancing higher and higher than the national average: we have favorable demographics, favorable parental employment and educational attainment rates, favorite levels of intact families, higher than average rates of instructional spending, among the nation's lowest staff-to-child ratios, and so forth.

I know it's hard. But really: shouldn't we be doing much better?

Our profile starts on p. 7:


Better news: One statistic that may be lost in the hubbub over today's score release is that the number of African-American students who took the ACT in Nebraska has risen from 492 in 2005 to 647 today. One can only assume that a lot of the growth in that test pool took place in OPS, where the lion's share of the state's African-American students are in school. So hats off to the OPS educators, if they increased that number. That is still only a gain from 3% of the test pool to 4%, though, and still reflects a shockingly low representation of black students in the college-prep population in the Cornhusker State. However, according to U.S. Census figures, African-Americans make up only about 4.5% of the state's population. So the ACT test pool's racial makeup here is getting close to being proportionately equitable.

Dart: We need to look hard at the statistic that the average ACT score for a Caucasian student in Nebraska last year was 22.6, compared to 17.7 for the average African-American test-taker here. What an unconscionable racial achievement gap. I believe the ACT score minimum for entry into the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a 20. So we're limiting educational opportunity far more harshly for our black students than we are for our white students, and that can't continue.

Challenge: Let's see what the average ACT scores are, by race, for each individual high school in Nebraska, with, of course, the raw numbers showing how many students took the ACT test and what percentage of that age group actually took the ACT. Let's see those stats for the private high schools, as well. Let's see if more racial minorities are taking the ACT at the private schools than the public schools, and scoring higher. I bet that's true, and if it's true, then why in the Sam Hill don't we start a school choice program NOW to help minority kids get into the college prep race?!? OPS and the other districts should be made to reveal that statistic since it is our tax dollars paying for everything they do, and we deserve accountability. Another stat we really need is the number of students, by race, in Nebraska who are scoring a "4" or "5" on the Advanced Placement tests each spring and thereby demonstrating that they have excelled in those academic subjects areas and gaining free college credit. I'll bet you the number of black kids getting AP credit is embarrassingly tiny in this state -- and that can't continue, either!

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OK, credit to OPS for an increase in the number of African-Americans taking the ACT test. Not so much credit, though, for the average very low score of 17.7 among African-Americans.

Overall, progress at OPS has been inadequate over the last decade, despite the facts that OPS has one employee for every seven students, and that OPS property taxes have increased by three times the rate of inflation during the past ten years, according to the Platte Institute.

I don't think much will change at OPS until we get new leadership. I think we should hire a young go-getter from KIPP or other very successful charter schools as superintendent, and pay him or her very well, with powerful monetary incentives for her and her staff,, but make it clear that we expect progress, starting in the first year. We have paid for a new Mercedes-Benz education and have received a clunky,used Ford
product long enough at OPS.
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