Figuring out what you need to do starts with understanding where you are and how you got there. And as JLF head John Hood observes, in education, North Carolina had a strong period of strong student achievement gains in the 1990s but things have largely stagnated since:

If you want to know how North Carolina’s public schools are really faring, the best measures are external. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administers rigorous tests to state samples of students in grades four and eight. During the first decade of NAEP testing in the 1990s, North Carolina made impressive gains. In math, the average score of our 8th-graders rose 30 points, more than double the national increase of 12 points. In reading, our 4th-graders posted a five-point gain from 1992 to 1998 while the national average was unchanged.

Around the turn of the century, however, our performance gains began to level off. From 2000 to 2013, the nation’s average 8th-grade math score rose another 12 points. North Carolina’s rose by nine. It wasn’t just perennial education pacesetters such as Massachusetts that posted the largest gains. States such as Mississippi (17 points), Tennessee (16), South Carolina (15), Texas (15), Louisiana (14), Georgia (14), and Virginia (13) also experienced larger math gains than North Carolina did.

In reading, our 8th-graders posted no gain at all from 2002 to 2013 while the average national score rose three points and all of our neighbors except Virginia gained as quickly or faster than the national average.

North Carolina’s lackluster performance since 2000 didn’t erase the effects of the earlier gains. In fact, our reading scores rank in the middle of the national pack, along with those of most of our neighbors, while in math we still outrank South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. My point is that virtually all of North Carolina’s relative improvement in reading and math occurred during the 1990s — before there could have been any effects on NAEP scores from much-touted reforms such as Smart Start, More at Four, the teacher-pay hikes under former Gov. Jim Hunt, or (in fairness) charter schools.

Hoods recommendations for the future?

There’s room for bipartisan agreement on the next phase of education reform in North Carolina, as well, which should include higher academic standards, rewards for high performance, accountability for low performance, and the provision of a diverse array of school choices for parents, students, and educators.

A precondition for consensus, however, is for North Carolina to adopt independent, rigorous annual measurements of student performance — and then stick with them.