Don't believe what they tell you about state's schools

Last modified: 12/11/2011 12:00:00 AM
New Hampshire's Republican legislative leadership has a vision for educating our school children. It's a private, market-based replacement for public schools. It features home schools and little accountability for results. And it's paid for with our tax money! They won't achieve that, but they're trying, and could do serious damage to New Hampshire public education in the process.

In the next session they will continue their effort to nullify the Claremont decision, abolish or immobilize the Department of Education, and deregulate home schooling. And they will propose school vouchers cloaked as an 'education tax credit' program.

To justify all this, they will make the case that New Hampshire has lousy schools. They've already started.

The Senate's education tax credit bill is in draft form and could change, but it says 'competition is critical to improving the quality of education in the state.' Its purpose is to educate children 'without governmental control' and 'enable children in this state to achieve a higher level of excellence' and 'improve the quality of education in this state.'

The only trouble is, our schools are already among the best in the country. Instead of taking pride in that, our Republican leadership has been twisting the facts to make us look bad.

House Deputy Speaker Pam Tucker of Greenland said in the Dec. 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 Michael Balboni of Nashua, used to trash our schools in The Telegraph on Nov. 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 website 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 fourth-graders have the highest math performance in the country. We have the highest proportion of 'Proficient' and 'Advanced' students in the country. And 92 percent of our students achieve 'Basic' or better. Our eighth-graders were third in the country. We get similar great results in all our tests and even compare well on a worldwide 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 third to eighth 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 four states in most categories almost every year. In math, for instance, 74 percent of our fourth-graders perform 'at or above proficient.' This has improved from 68 percent in 2007. In reading, it's 80 percent. 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 de-fund it. A good place to start would be for our legislative leadership to stop gratuitously trashing our schools.

Our education system may be too precious to entrust to this Legislature. The rest of us need to stand guard over it.

(Bill Duncan of New Castle is a retired software entrepreneur.)

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