2011 NAEP Vocabulary Results By State: Why Is Texas Beating California?

The feds` National Assessment of Educational Progress has a table of 4th and 8th grade vocabulary and reading comprehension scores by state. Sample size issues are of concern for smaller states which tend to bounce around, but we can state with a high degree of statistical confidence that the future of the state of California, the traditional State of the Future, looks dumb. Out of the 50 states, the Golden State ranks 48th, 47th, 48th, and 49th on various measures.

In contrast, Massachusetts is 1st, 1st, 1st, and 1st. Obviously, the problem is all those Republicans in California.

Perhaps more relevantly, Texas is 37th, 36th, 37th, and 36th. Texas always beats California on the NAEP. Has anybody studied this to make sure this is not just a test artifact (e.g., Texas cares about the NAEP and California doesn`t)? If it isn`t, why the consistent difference? Texas is pretty bad, but it`s not as bad as California, and beggars can`t be choosers, so somebody ought to be investigating why Texas beats California.

One obvious objection is that the future isn`t as bad as it looks because Hispanics, as new immigrants, are just being held back by the inevitable biases of testing skills in English. 

Indeed, this effect does exist, but how big is it? Here`s national 8th grade vocabulary. The first number is score at the 10th percentile, then 25th, 50th, 75th and 90th. 

2011 NAEP Vocabulary Results By State: Why Is Texas Beating California?

Let`s first compare whites and Asians. At the 10th percentile, Asians lag whites by 8 points. Presumably, a fair number of these Asian 8th graders just got off the plane from China, so their English vocabulary is limited. At the 25th percentile, the White-Asian gap is down to 5 points. At the median, it`s 3, at the 75th percentile it`s 0, and at the 90th percentile, Asians are out in the lead by a point. 

Now, compare Hispanics to blacks, most of whom grow up speaking English, but as we all know from hundreds of articles, African-Americans grow up in conditions that would drive a Trappist Monk crazy for lack of speech. In black homes, nobody every talks, watches TV, or listens to rap music. So, black scores on language are bad, with unfortunate long-term consequences. 

At the 10th percentile, where many of the Hispanics are newcomers, blacks lead by 2 points. At the 25th percentile, however, Hispanics are out in front by 1 point, by 2 at the median, 3 at the 75 percentile, and 4 at the 90th. 

So, clearly, Hispanics who have all the advantages are, on average, a little smarter than blacks who have all the advantages. In other words, if immigration were shut off for a generation or two, Mexicans would appear, on average, perceptibly more on the ball academically than blacks. Indeed, that was my perception back in the 1970s in L.A., where the Chicanos had mostly been a stable population since WWII.

But, nationally, Hispanics only pick up 6 points on blacks going from the 10th to the 90th percentiles, while Asians pick up 9 points on whites, who are, to be frank, a lot more competition.

Being a little smarter than blacks is, well, good. Or, you could say with equal justice, less bad. On the other hand, Hispanics at the 90th percentile among Hispanics, typically those with all the advantages, are simply not playing in the same league as Asians and whites with all the advantages. They`re down there beating out blacks for third place, not being nationally competitive. There`s not a lot of high end in the Hispanic population. 

However you look at it, it`s still not very encouraging considering that our leadership kind of bet the country on Hispanics.