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Another View, with Andrew Cline: Low-income NH students need better options

April 15. 2018 3:04AM

Andrew Cline 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results are out, and the data show that despite New Hampshire's relatively high scores, serious gaps remain in the system's ability to provide every student with an adequate education.

New Hampshire typically outperforms most states on NAEP scores, a fact often cited as a reflection of the quality of New Hampshire public schools. Though New Hampshire's performance relative to other states is a sign that much is going right here, a closer look at the numbers reveals areas for concern.

The percentage of New Hampshire fourth-graders scoring "proficient" or better in math fell from 59 percent to 48 percent since 2013. The percentage scoring proficient or better in reading fell slightly, from 45 percent to 43 percent.

Eighth-grade proficiency scores had been growing in the new century, but lately they have stagnated or fallen. Since 2013, the percentage of New Hampshire students scoring proficient or better in math fell from 47 percent to 45 percent. The reading scores bumped up slightly, from 44 percent to 45 percent scoring proficient or better.

The trends are concerning, but regardless of the trend lines a bigger problem is obvious. Not even 50 percent of New Hampshire students score proficient or better in math or reading. A lot of children struggle to achieve at levels expected by employers, college admissions officials, parents and legislators.

Large gaps between distinct groups of students are just as concerning. For example, lower-income students continue to lag behind their counterparts in New Hampshire, as in the rest of the country.

Eighth-grade students eligible for the National School Lunch Program score 27 percentage points below non-eligible students in math. That gap has widened by 5 percentage points since 2013. The gap for fourth grade has also grown, from 19 points to 21 points.

In reading, the fourth-grade gap grew by three percentage points, from 22 to 25, and the eighth-grade gap ticked up a single percentage point, from 20 to 21.

As is common across the country, New Hampshire students are assigned to a public school based on the student's street address. Many students do very well in the public school that happens to be closest to their home. Small but persistent subsets, however, do not perform well in this system.

These large performance gaps have remained stubbornly persistent despite their identification as a serious problem decades ago. There are ways to help these students immediately, without waiting decades more for further reforms to be developed and then make their way through the public school system. Lawmakers just need the courage to pass them.

Policymakers can offer immediate assistance to these children in the form of limited school choice programs.

Most quality studies of the effects of school choice programs show academic gains for students who leave their assigned public school for an alternative education. As noted here, 14 of 18 random-assignment studies found proficiency score improvements for students who participated in school choice programs. Two of the remaining studies showed no gain, and only two found negative effects in the first year.

Likewise, of 33 studies that tested the effects of school choice programs on traditional public schools, 31 found that academic performance improved in the traditional public schools.

A 2016 Harvard University study of Louisiana's school choice program for low-income students highlights these effects. The study found that school choice led to small but significant gains, particularly in math scores, for students who stayed in public schools. Schools that were lower-performing or that had a large number of private schools nearby showed larger gains. This suggests that the stronger the competitive forces, the bigger the gains for public school students.

The New Hampshire House is considering an education savings account bill, Senate Bill 193, that would target this lower-income population. It would let these students spend most of their state education aid on alternative forms of education, should their parents decide that the neighborhood school is not the best fit. Local property tax money would remain in the public school to be divided among remaining students.

No school can be all things to all children. A limited school choice program that offers alternatives to lower-income students would help them and the students who remain in traditional public schools. For the sake of all students, it's time we offered options for those who aren't thriving in the current system.

Andrew Cline is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Concord.

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