Thursday, March 17, 2011

Special report: He was the son of a teacher, man!


(permalink): Unheard of! On March 3, Jon Stewart broadcast an intelligent discussion concerning our public schools.

Stewart interviewed Diane Ravitch, an education historian. He asked a series of intelligent questions. He ended up praising his mother, a long-term devoted teacher.

Jon Stewart’s the son of teacher, man! 

Plainly, this must explain the intelligent segment he presented that night. We liberals quit on such topics a long time ago; we don’t give a fig about public school issues, or about the black and Hispanic kids whose lives and fortunes hang in the balance. We don’t stoop to discussing such issues. The son of a teacher did.

Why did it fall to Stewart to stage this segment—the type of segment you’ll never see on The One True Liberal Channel? Simple answer: We liberals are too great for such petty concerns. And when we review the American discourse, our indolence really shows.

How bad is our discourse about public schools? About the deserving children who attend them? Consider the remarkable news report which appeared in the New York Post. The lengthy report appeared on February 20, penned by education reporter Susan Edelman.
Edelman wrote about the recent non-scandal scandal concerning New York State test scores. In the liberal and the mainstream press worlds, this scandal has been non-existent, of course. The liberal world has ignored it completely; last fall, the New York Times offered a vague and blowsy report which skirted most major issues.

But at the much-reviled New York Post, Edelman cut to the chase last month. Her headline spoke of New York’s “testing con.”This is how she started:
EDELMAN (2/20/11): In a stunningly short time, from 2006 to 2009, New York schools celebrated what was presented as a tremendous turnaround.

The number of city students passing statewide math tests in the third through eighth grades surged from 58 percent to 82 percent. At the same time, the Big Apple graduation rate rose from 49 percent to an all-time high of 63 percent last year.

The cures were miraculous. They were also, for the most part, a lie.

How did the state testing system, meant to closely gauge how well students and their schools were doing, create such a grand illusion?
Ouch! By now, of course, the state of New York has basically thrown all those test scores down the drain. Last summer, the state announced that it had been forced to revise its statewide tests, because they had somehow become too easy to pass. And sure enough! 

When the state’s new tests were used in the spring of 2010, passing rates dropped like a stone! As Edelman notes in that opening passage, all that grand and glorious progress suddenly faded away.

As she continued, Edelman started to give an explanation for those lower passing rates. 

She reported a set of gruesome facts the New York Times has basically chosen to skip, right to this very day:
EDELMAN (continuing directly): Insiders and critics interviewed by The Post largely blame Richard Mills, the state's education commissioner for 14 years until he resigned in 2009.

The standardized tests approved by Mills and his team measured a limited number of skills and repeated similar questions year after year. At the same time, Mills instructed the company hired to administer the tests, CTB/McGraw-Hill, to gradually lower "cut scores," the minimal points kids needed to pass or demonstrate proficiency.

In 2006, for example, sixth-graders taking the English language arts test had to answer 16 of 39 questions correctly, or 41 percent, to achieve Level 2, which is below proficient but enough to advance to the next grade. But by 2009, the sixth-graders needed just 7 of 39 points—a paltry 18 percent.

"We were clearly misrepresenting student achievement," said Betty Rosa, a former Bronx superintendent on the state Board of Regents, which oversees education statewide. "We were not giving the public the truth."
Say what? In 2006, the score required to achieve “Level 2” status was already just 41 percent. But over the course of the next three years, the required score dropped to just 18 percent! Let’s be clear: In theory, “Level 2” was the score a student needed to be promoted to the next grade; that student wasn’t rated “proficient” (Level 3) in official designations. But that “cut score” was downgraded too, according to Edelman’s report:
EDELMAN: While leading the public to believe students were making great strides, Mills' team was quietly reducing the number and percentage of points needed to pass or demonstrate proficiency each year.

Third-graders taking the math exam in 2006, for instance, had to score 17 out of 38 points, or 45 percent, to make a passing Level 2. In 2009, they needed just 11 points out of 39, or 28 percent. 

In 2006, they needed to correctly answer 64.4 percent of questions to score a proficient Level 3. By 2009, that had dropped to 53.8 percent.

Teachers found themselves "teaching to the test" by using old exams as practice, because many questions were strikingly similar to those asked the year before.

"The kids knew what to expect, and they naturally did better," a third-grade teacher from Brooklyn said of the 2009 tests. "I had kids that truly had no business passing, despite my best efforts. I was shocked when they passed.

It was really a disservice."
According to Edelman’s reporting, it wasn’t just the lower “cut rates” which led to higher proficiency rates. She also cited the repetitive questions on the tests, which made specialized “teaching to the test” a great deal easier. In fairness, lower “cut rates” might be justified if a test’s questions had been made harder for some reason. But uh-oh! Edelman covered that topic too:
EDELMAN (continuing directly): Skepticism mounted. Fred Smith, a former testing analyst for city schools, independently studied the "p-value," or difficulty level of the test questions. Mills and other officials argued that the questions had become more difficult, thus justifying the lower cutoff scores. Smith found the items getting easier each year.

"It confirmed what principals and teachers believed—that the state had dumbed down the tests," he said.
Oof. According to Smith, the questions themselves were getting easier, even as the cut rates were being relaxed!

This is a detailed report on a gruesome subject. There is much more to Edelman’s report than the parts we have included; we’d suggest that you read the whole thing, which runs 2200 words. (Warning: Edelman reports on several state testing programs. Be careful to tease them apart.) That said, might we quickly note two other parts of this story?

First, note the political use to which this bungled testing was put. What follows is based in part on an anonymous source, though Mayor Bloomberg’s relentless self-praise is part of the public record.
EDELMAN: Another insider said Big Apple officials were urged not to "exaggerate" the results. But Mayor Bloomberg hailed the increase in 2009 as an "enormous victory." At the time, he had a lot riding on the scores—he was seeking a third term and pushing for legislation to extend mayoral control of the schools.

City officials "got very angry," the insider said, when Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch publicly downplayed the results, citing "troubling gaps" between the stellar state scores and lackluster outcomes on national exams.
For the record: In all the reporting we have seen, Tisch comes off as a hero in the pushback against his scam. Then too, you should note this remarkable passage about test preparation:
EDELMAN: The state has awarded $48.2 million in contracts to CTB/McGraw-Hill to devise the math and reading test. The city Department of Education gave the same California-based company an $80 million contract to develop practice tests.
The practice tests cost more than the tests themselves? Is there any way that could be accurate? For the record, CTB/McGraw-Hill is the big corporate player we mentioned in yesterday’s post. And by the way: If their actual tests are any good, you don’t need all that “practice testing!”

Though it does help you score lots of money.
We aren’t experts on the New York situation, but this isn’t the first time we’ve read about lowered “cut scores.” In last year’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch briefly described the same problem, referring to “the state’s secret decision to lower the points needed to advance on the state tests.” (We think we’ve seen Ravitch discuss this elsewhere, although we aren’t sure.) But as far as we know, these embarrassing claims have never been reported, analyzed or debunked by the New York Times, our greatest mainstream player. Last October, the paper did a long, front-page report about the implosion of the state’s passing rates. But the report was very airy; it made little attempt to nail down the reasons behind the inflated rates.

Why did it fall to the New York Post to report this remarkable story? As with Stewart, so with the Post; it falls to comedians and tabloids to discuss public schools when high-minded liberals won’t. On MSNBC, the very high-minded millionaire hosts would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge before they’d stoop to discussing such topics; these topics concern public school teachers and low-income kids, the types of beings who seem beneath our lofty “liberal” airs. Meanwhile, the New York Times has frequently played the cheerleader role for the brilliant Mayor Bloomberg. He is a billionaire, after all, and we live in a land where the billionaires are rather plainly in charge.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at that very problem. When pseudo-liberals stare into space, wasting their time on vapid confections, billionaires fill the vacuum. That seems to be a substantial part of what has been happening when it comes to our public schools.

Tomorrow—part 3: Diane and the billionaires