We're not the dumbest state - we're just gullible
Arizona Republic
Nov. 1, 2006

Robert Robb

In Arizona, for some reason, education tends to be used as a political football, rather than as a serious topic for discussion.

Janet Napolitano is a good example. When she first ran for governor in 2002, she denounced Arizona's "failing public schools." Now that she's running for re-election, she says Arizona schools aren't so bad.

In the interim, Arizona's relative ranking compared with other states on spending and student achievement didn't materially change. Instead, Napolitano's strategic political imperative changed, and with it her assessment of the performance of Arizona schools.

To be bipartisan about it, her Republican opponent Len Munsil is beating her over the head with a Morgan Quitno Press index that ranks Arizona schools last in the country. That index relies heavily on spending comparisons, which Munsil doesn't believe is the key to improving education. There is nothing in the index about school choice, which Munsil believes is vital.

The only truly meaningful measure of the performance of Arizona's public schools is student achievement. And researchers on both the left and the right agree that the best measure of student achievement is the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The NAEP is a test given to a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in each state under the aegis of the federal Department of Education.

Arizona's results tell an interesting tale for those willing to wallow around in the data a bit.

Overall, Arizona's NAEP results lag behind the national average and are among the lowest of the states in fourth-grade reading and math.

Things improve somewhat in the eighth-grade results. Reading scores still lag the national average, but not by as much. Math results are very close to the national average.

In these assessments, however, demography matters. Arizona, for example, has twice the national average of English-learners in the samples. For fourth grade, nearly a fifth of Arizona students in the most recent sample were English-learners.

Looking at demographic subgroups is very revealing.

In the fourth-grade assessments, White math scores were close to the national average. In other demographic subgroups, however, Arizona still lagged behind, as did White reading scores.

By eighth grade, however, the story is different. Whites were pretty much at the national average in both reading and math. Arizona Blacks were actually above the national average for Black students nationwide in reading and math. Arizona Hispanics continued to lag behind, but not by nearly as much.

The lack of spread amongst the states is also notable. For White eighth-grade math scores, for example, there is only a 10 percent difference between the average score for the highest-ranked state and the lowest.
There's a spread of less than 10 percent in Hispanic eighth-grade reading scores.

This is not to say that public education in Arizona, particularly for Latinos, doesn't need to get better. However, there is no case to be made that Arizona schools are doing a worse job of educating kids of all socioeconomic categories than schools elsewhere. In fact, the relative homogeneity of results across states stands out.

Arizona does spend less per pupil on education than most other states, although not as dramatically as commonly supposed. Arizona ranks high among the states in capital expenses, since we build a lot of new schools, and low in operating expenses.

But not the lowest. According to the most recent DOE statistics, five states spend less than Arizona in operating expenses and eight states spend less overall.

To bring Arizona up to the average in operating expenses would take more than a billion dollars a year. People who grouse about Arizona's low ranking on this measure never seem to put a proposal on the table that would actually do anything about it.

This is the real discussion to be had about how Arizona's public school system ranks. Instead, Arizona's political and media elites have been convulsed over the Morgan Quitno Press index.

The people who put out this index aren't educational researchers. They didn't do any original research. Instead, they compile data from public sources but charge to access the repackaged information.

They are skilled marketers. Instead of a ranking of state education systems, they call it a smart index. Arizona ranked at the bottom, so that makes us the dumbest. And so Morgan Quitno Press got the free publicity it sought.
The company is now getting it again by repackaging publicly available crime statistics.

Fairly considered, Arizona schools are about average. On the gullibility index, however, Arizona is off the charts.

Reach Robb at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8472. His column
appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Read his blog at