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N.H. Ranks High in Math, Reading Scores - But Maybe Not as High as You Think

When the Department of Education released its latest round of state-level reading and math scores this week, it was cause for cheer in New Hampshire. The state ranked in the top two or three states in every category and grade-level tests.

Those kind of high marks have been common in New Hampshire for years. But a recent report suggests the state’s status as one of the nation’s top test-takers should come down a few notches. 

To see why that's the case, you need to understand the role student demographics play in test scores. 

Decades of research shows that, generally speaking, non-white and low-income students score lower on tests because they may lack the support or advantages of their peers. New Hampshire, on the other hand, has one of the least racially-diverse student populations in the nation, and one of the lowest levels of poverty among schoolchildren. As a result, New Hampshire’s schools shine in state rankings because we have among the lowest share of disadvantaged kids in the country.

But researchers from the Urban Institute wanted to know what happens if you account for those kind of demographic differences in comparing test scores from state to state. They adjusted the raw scores of each state from the 2013 National Assessment of Education Performance, or NAEP, tests for student demographics like race, ethnicity, poverty, and the share of students who don’t speak English or are in special education courses. The underlying assumption here is that states’ test scores vary, to a large extent, due to the demographic mix of their students. States with higher shares of these students would be expected to have lower overall test scores.

“This means that any comparison of NAEP scores across states must consider each state’s student population,” the paper states.

After making these adjustments, the standard state rankings were significantly reshuffled, to New Hampshire’s disadvantage (see chart below).

Credit Urban Institute, "Breaking the Curve," Oct. 2015

New Hampshire fell from third to ninth place in the 2013 scores and saw one of the largest drops in adjusted scores. Vermont, Minnesota and Utah saw similar declines. All, like New Hampshire have largely white, relatively affluent and highly-educated populations – demographic mixes which tend to result in higher student test scores.

Texas and Florida, two states with large numbers of non-white students, saw the biggest jump in their state rankings, rising to third and fourth place among the 50 states.

The Urban Institute’s report looked just at the 2013 test scores and demographic data. But it’s likely that researchers would have found similar results looking at the 2015 test scores, which were released earlier this week. On those scores, New Hampshire finished near the top of the national rankings, but also had one of the least demographically diverse student populations.

And here’s another way to see how demographic and economic advantages boost New Hampshire’s test scores: When comparing just the performance of white students from state to state, New Hampshire’s national rankings fall significantly.

For instance, New Hampshire’s statewide scores for 4th grade reading rank it second in the nation. But its 4th grade reading scores for white students alone rank 19th, on par with the national average. It’s a similar case across testing subjects and grade levels, and when comparing test scores for students who aren’t in poverty. But, again, New Hampshire's lower test scores for “non-disadvantaged” students are masked by the fact that most other states have higher shares of non-white or low-income students.

One promising note: The so-called “racial gap” – the difference in test scores between white and non-white students – was in almost all cases narrower in New Hampshire than for the nation as a whole. 

Dan is NHPR's news director.
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