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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #131, February 2011. Copyright 2010, Left Business Observer.

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Beastly numbers

On January 24, The Daily Beast published a ranking of the states based on a composite of reading and math test scores for fourth and eighth graders. The tests were from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is probably the best as these things go, though these things are doubtless horribly blinkered ways of viewing the world. The way not to read them was the one taken by The Daily Beast: they called the story “States with the Smartest Kids.” But since tests, as flawed as they are, do predict future economic success or failure with some accuracy, they are still worth looking at. It’s not just that tests are unjust; so is the world we live in.

What happens when you compare the Beast’s rankings with state rankings on things that people think matter in education policy? Most strongly, you find that poverty really matters: almost 60% of the states’ positions in the Beast rankings can be explained statistically by the share of the student population on free or subsidized lunches. (The Beast treats Washington, DC, as a state, and so do we.) A state’s overall income level and poverty rate matter, but not as much as the lunch numbers—which makes sense, since they’re a very good proxy for child poverty.

(Two very important notes before proceeding