Some would have us believe that Mike Sentance was chosen to be our new state school superintendent based almost entirely on math scores in his native Massachusetts and his role in getting them to where they are. Governor Bentley, the guy who says Alabama education “sucks,” has repeatedly talked about 4th grade math scores in the Bay State being tops in the nation. (Which they are.)
But as is most often the case when politicians or their fellow travelers are trying to justify a decision, they fail to tell us the entire story–if they have bothered to look it up.
For instance, Eunie Smith, President of Eagle Forum of Alabama, sent a letter to state school board members after Sentance was picked which said, “It was refreshing and hopeful to hear Mr. Sentance in his interview as he explained that Alabama’s problems are comparable to what Massachusetts faced, and as he eloquently suggested solutions like those that he implemented and that worked in Massachusetts.”
Unfortunately the facts do not support Ms. Smith’s statement.
The truth is that when the first NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) tests were given in 1992, Massachusetts was tied for No. 5 in the U.S. on 4th grade math and was above the national average. Same for 8th grade math. Massachusetts was No. 7 in the country and again, above the national average.
To insinuate that Alabama and Massachusetts were once in the same boat is foolish. Truth is, our boats weren’t even in the same body of water. And they still aren’t.
Why? Because comparing the demographics of the two school systems in each state is apples to oranges. According to 2016 numbers from the Kids County data center, only three states (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico) have a higher level of child poverty than our 27 percent. Conversely, only eight states have a lower rate than Massachusetts.
And though Massachusetts has 283,000 more children than Alabama does, we have 87,000 more living in poverty than they do. Some 32.8 percent of our public school students are black, compared to only 8.8 percent in Massachusetts.
The reality of such truths are borne out by looking at the “failing schools” designated by the first reporting according to the Alabama Accountability Act. Collectively, these schools were 91 percent poverty and 87 percent black. Alabama has 21 school systems with at least 70 percent or more poverty.
A close look at NAEP math scores for Massachusetts students who are black or poverty, shows very mixed results. In 1996, the “gap” between poverty students and non-poverty in Massachusetts was No. 10 in the country and better than the national average in 4th grade math.. Alabama was No. 30. But in 2015 the Massachusetts gap was No. 41 nationally (and greater than the national average) while Alabama was No. 21 and less than the national average. So we have two different states heading in opposite directions.
These same trends hold for black students. In 1992, the achievement “gap” between black and white students in Massachusetts showed them less than the national average and ranked No. 15. The gap that year in Alabama was the same as the one in the Bay State. But we again have two states headed in different directions. In 2015 the Massachusetts gap was greater than the national average and they dropped from No. 15 to 31 nationally. However, Alabama narrowed the gap to less than the national average in the same time frame.
Yes, test scores for both black and poverty students in Massachusetts are higher than those in Alabama, but two things are concerning. Trend lines show progress in Massachusetts is troubling and this is doubly disturbing given the much greater numbers of both poverty and black students in Alabama than in the Bay State.
A look back at historical census data gives us perspective. In 1920 there were 148,269 tenant farms in Alabama, but only 2,287 in Massachusetts. In 1850 Alabama had 342,844 slaves, Massachusetts had none. These numbers continue to have huge impact on who we are in the Heart of Dixie. To ignore them as some wish to do is ludicrous.
And to imply that Massachusetts has the answers we need is simply not supported by reality.