Samuelson, Somerby, Chait, and Test Scores

As I’ve observed in the past the trajectory in recent decades has been for white kids’ NAEP scores to go up and also for black kids’ NAEP scores to go up.

Meanwhile, over the weekend Robert Samuelson did a post about how since overall NAEP scores have been largely flat for the past few decades, that proves that all efforts at school reform are pointless. Jon Chait rebutted several aspects of Samuelson’s piece, but he missed a larger issue that Bob Somerby rightly highlights:

First, the gain by white 17-year-old students was relatively small during that 37-year period; their average score went up only eight points, as opposed to 29 points for their black peers. The second point is much more important. The balance of the demographic groups in the student population changed a great deal during that period; Samuelson explains how this factor works in the passage we’ve quoted. Samuelson: “Average test scores have remained stable because, although the scores of blacks and Hispanics have risen slightly, the size of these minority groups also expanded (our emphasis). This means that their still-low scores exert a bigger drag on the average.” That statement is completely accurate, except for the deeply misleading claim that the scores of black students rose only “slightly.” Alas! Black and Hispanic students still score significantly lower than white students, despite their larger score gains during this period. Because they now comprise a larger percentage of the student population than they did in 1971, the average score overall has changed little in that time, even though the average score of all three major demographic groups has advanced.

That’s a great point, and crucially important. Unfortunately, after heaping much-deserved scorn on Samuelson, Somerby goes on to heap all kinds of scorn on Chait and then to draw wide-ranging conclusions about the idea that liberals in general don’t care about black kids. This kind of things ends up getting Somerby a smaller audience than he deserves. But the main point is both clear and important — history gives us no reason to doubt that it’s possible for black kids to do better in school.