Math gains, more neededMeasurements of how well taxpayer-supported schools are educating children can be confusing to a public looking for simple indicators.But the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- known as "The Nation's Report Card" -- is a standardized test that's widely seen as a trustworthy tool for comparing states based on student achievement in math, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, U.S. history and geography.A new study based on NAEP performance in the five largest states shows Texas scores have improved in math, but the report also underscores some of the state's serious shortcomings. (1.usa.gov/YJ7sMc)In "Mega-States: An analysis of Student Performance in the Five Most Heavily Populated States in the Nation," the National Center for Education Statistics looked at California, Texas, New York, Illinois and Florida, which collectively educate almost 40 percent of U.S. public school students.Among that group, Texas (with about 5 million children in public schools) spends the least per student: $8,562, based on data for the 2009-10 school year.New York (2.7 million students) spent $17,746, followed by Illinois (2.1 million students) at $11,592. The national average was $10,591.Inadequate funding is a major complaint from Texas educators, parents and other advocacy groups.School districts' lawsuits over that very issue are headed to the Texas Supreme Court after state District Judge John Dietz ruled that the state's funding plan violates the Texas Constitution.The "mega-states" report doesn't analyze the impact of money on achievement; that's for others to ponder and debate, and that's sure to continue.The report does show that Texas eighth-graders scored above the national average in math and science, though below it in reading, on the most recent tests.The study also breaks down results by racial groups (white/black/Hispanic); free/reduced-price lunch eligibility; and status as English-language learner.On reading, Texas was the only state of the big five in which eighth-graders' reading scores showed no increase between 1998 and 2011.Texas fourth-graders' math scores increased 23 points between 1992 and 2011, and eighth-graders' gained 32 points from 1990 to 2011. The biggest jumps were for blacks (up 42 points) and Hispanics (up 38 points), but all other groups went up, too."Although the Mega-States report provides a wonderful snapshot, I do not believe any of the states represented think the gains have been enough, or that the work is anywhere near complete," Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams said in a statement Thursday.He's right. Texas needs to get its money's worth from its schools -- but first it needs to put sufficient money in to do the job of properly educating the state's children.Targeting literacySome critics have harrumphed that Target's retail partnership with Neiman Marcus just didn't sell. But Target's partnership to renovate school libraries? Now, that's an exciting deal.Three Fort Worth elementary schools are in the running for a library makeover courtesy of Target and the literacy-focused Heart of America Foundation. (www.heartofamerica.org)The Fort Worth school district reports on its website that representatives from the company and the Washington-based foundation are scheduled to visit the schools -- M.H. Moore in north Fort Worth; and Bruce Shulkey and Westcreek, both in the southwest sector -- on March 6 and decide by the end of the day which campus will get the equivalent of a shopping spree.Target has been putting its bull's-eye on school libraries since 2007 and has remade 118 so far, according to the company website. (http://tgt.biz/XHbF50)For the 2012-13 school year, the plan is to renovate 32 elementary school libraries, giving each one 2,000 books; furniture, carpet and shelves; a technology upgrade, including iPads; and seven new books for each student to take home.Schools also will have the option to set up a Target Meals for Minds food pantry to assist children and their families with fresh produce and staples.Even in a high-tech world, books remain a key learning tool, especially for young children. Yet many families living in poverty have no books at home, and too many parents don't understand the importance of reading to their children.Sure, this kind of endeavor gets a company warm-hearted publicity, but it's also the type of collaboration that makes a fundamental contribution to a community.A fall grand opening is expected at the winning Fort Worth school. Wouldn't it be grand if all three schools could get a makeover -- by Target or another library champion?