Christensen: NC's kids are doing better than you think

rchristensen@newsobserver.comDecember 10, 2013 


Forestville Road Elementary School fourth-grader McKenna Gresham studies in Sunny Collins’ classroom on Thursday, Nov. 7.


— Never mind South Carolina. North Carolina’s public school students are outperforming students in Israel and Sweden.

That’s according to a new U.S. Department of Education study that recently landed in my inbox.

During a talk at a Chapel Hill retirement community here recently, I was asked this question: Given the failure of North Carolina’s public schools, what did I think about charter schools, or words to that effect.

That North Carolina’s schools are failing is a widely shared assumption in certain circles. It is repeated in the echo chamber of talk radio. It is confirmed every time you come across some store clerk who can’t make change, or you hear from an employer who can’t find somebody to operate some piece of technology.

It is given credence by news stories of struggling school systems in poor areas, of racial disparities and of confusing reports about test scores being down because the tests are more difficult.

But there is evidence that North Carolina’s kids are doing better than you think. In fact, they are doing better than the national average and better than most kids around the world.

How do we know? Science and math tests were given to eighth-graders in every state and in more than 50 countries or international regions such as Canadian provinces in 2011.

Above average in math

In their math scores, North Carolina’s students performed well above the national average, trailing only students in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey, Minnesota and New Hampshire.

And as far as global competitiveness, they were bested by five Southeast Asian countries – Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Japan – but out-performed students in 40 countries, including those in Israel, England, Italy and Sweden. Students in two countries performed at about the same level as Tar Heel students – Quebec, Canada, and the Russian Federation.

North Carolina students did not perform as well in science as they did in math, but they still scored above the national average. Students in 30 states did better than those in North Carolina, although the Tar Heel state trailed only Virginia and Kentucky in the South..

Globally, students in six international school systems – Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Finland, Japan, Alberta, Canada, and South Korea – outperformed North Carolina students in science, while students in eight countries performed at the same level, and those in 32 countries did worse.

Steady improvement

The scores of North Carolina students have been steadily improving over the years.

The tests were the result of The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a program known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” which has been produced since 1969 by the National Center for Education Statistics. The results are from a representative sampling of students – typically 3,000 students from 100 schools across the state.

It was combined with a second report, called “The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study,” which has been comparing students in different countries since 1995.

You can see their joint report, “U.S. States in a Global Context,” at and judge for yourself.

I don’t offer this information to argue for one education policy or another – for higher pay for teachers, for tax credits for private schools, for charter schools, etc. They are all separate subjects worthy of debate by themselves.

But the next time someone says the North Carolina public schools are failing, you should understand that someone is expressing their opinion, not the facts.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or

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