Massachusetts students have hit the honor roll again. The state's fourth- and eighth-graders scored best in the nation in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. They even topped the state's scores from 2005, when they also led the nation in the NAEP, known as the national report card.

Massachusetts students have hit the honor roll again. The state's fourth- and eighth-graders scored best in the nation in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. They even topped the state's scores from 2005, when they also led the nation in the NAEP, known as the national report card.


The NAEP is a valuable complement to the state MCAS exams, which test students against the state's educational standards. While each state chooses its own standardized tests, the NAEP is national and continues to demonstrate that, whatever the shortcomings in Massachusetts schools, they are doing a better job than schools in 49 other states.


Students should be proud, and so should their teachers, principals and parents.


But both the NAEP and the MCAS results point to a problem that isn't obvious in aggregate or average test scores: The academic achievement gap between white and minority students remains too large. On the fourth-grade NAEP reading test, for instance, 56 percent of white students scored proficient, compared to 18 percent of Hispanic students and 19 percent of black students. The other tests showed similar gaps.


The persistence and universality of the achievement gap has frustrated academics and educators. Even in suburban districts with high per-pupil spending and sterling reputations, white students out-perform blacks and Hispanics. Suggested explanations tend to be historical and cultural, including such factors as home environment, the language spoken at home and the educational attainment of parents. They also point to a general thesis that ought to be obvious: Different students thrive in different school environments; no one size fits all.


One application of that thesis came up for debate on Beacon Hill this week, as the Joint Education Committee heard testimony on several bills relating to charter public schools. Most of the arguments were familiar; the Legislature has been debating the merits of charter schools for 14 years.


Parents of charter school students sang their praises and urged no retreat from the funding formula that allows them to keep afloat. A newly-formed group of business leaders called on the state to lift the cap that prevents new charter schools from being opened in Boston and other cities where there are long waiting lists for existing charter schools.


Opponents brought out familiar complaints that the current formula, which shifts state aid from district schools to charters operating in that district on a per-pupil basis, hurting the district schools.


Rep. Pam Richardson, D-Framingham, a leading charter school opponent, blamed a regional charter middle school in her town for a budget crunch that resulted in, among other cutbacks, the closing of an elementary school. That contention is countered by the pro-charter camp, which notes that per pupil spending in Framingham rose from $6,900 in 1997, before the charter school opened, to $13,600 today. During that time, the average teacher salary in Framingham rose from $37,000 to nearly $58,000. The damage done to Framingham's district schools is unproven, but plenty of MetroWest parents will testify to the good it has done for their children.


There is a discussion to be had about the need for charter schools in suburban districts with successful schools and how charter schools designed for high-performing students fit into the state's educational future. One size doesn't fit all suburban students either, but whether the current system is providing the right options in all communities is subject to debate.


What isn't debatable, in light of the NAEP and MCAS scores, is that minority students need access to programs that help them close the achievement gap. Some charter schools, though not all, have shown impressive results in turning around students who start out with serious educational disadvantages.


With Gov. Deval Patrick preparing an ambitious education reform plan, more study of charter schools is likely. But if Patrick and legislators are serious about closing the achievement gap, they should start by raising the cap on charter schools in those districts where student performance isn't anywhere near honor-roll quality.