Times Warp

I don’t know why Diane Ravitch used the word “failing” in quotes when referring to schools and No Child Left Behind in her blurb in The Times today.  The law doesn’t use that word at all…

I also don’t know why Timesman Sam Dillon decided the other day to focus on the changes in what’s required for a school to make “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind rather than the underlying numbers.   I do know that it was misleading.  

For instance, per the article, someone might reasonably be surprised to learn that California is requiring an 11 percentage point increase in the number of students who must pass the state’s tests in order for a school to meet benchmarks under the law.  11 percentage points, that’s a lot!  They might, however, find that less egregious if they knew that it’s a change from 26 percent of students in a school passing to 37 percent (pdf).   You have to dig deep to find that though, right at the end.  That’s also where Dillon got snowed by the person telling him that the 11 percent target was for just this year.  In fact, according to the state’s accountability workbook, the bar in CA hasn’t risen since 2005 so schools actually had several years to get there.   I can see why excluding that information matters, kinda kills the kicker quotes…

Regardless, though it’s exhausting, I guess we can still debate whether only having barely more than one in three students passing the state’s test means a school should be identified as “needing improvement” or even for that matter failing, but shouldn’t readers at least get the information in a straightforward way?  Instead, the article more or less hangs on the number of schools not meeting targets and the gains required, not the underlying requirements.

To be fair, at least Dillon does have the decency far down in the story to clue readers in that the reason the particular school he profiles is in trouble is not because only 4 in 10 students are passing the test overall — that’s way past the bar for success.  Rather, it’s because only 29 percent of black students are passing.     I’m not an editor at The Times, but if I were I might have asked Dillon if he talked to any of the black parents, and whether they thought this was OK and they were fine with their children passing the tests at substantially lower rates than other students?  If they did then that would be an interesting story…I raise this because it wouldn’t be the first time Dillon forgot to ask the minority parents about what is going on…

I guess I just don’t have the necessary perspective for success in this business because South Carolina’s schools chief was quoted in the Dillon piece as saying that, “the law is diagnosing schools that just have the sniffles with having pneumonia.”  Instead, I’d say that 29 percent is illustrative of something more akin to an epidemic.    In other words, sure the 100 percent target is arbitrary and all that, but let’s have that conversation when we’re within long shouting distance of it.   In the meantime, more interesting and positively impactful  journalism might be looking at why we’re not.

Update:   I hadn’t realized that Charlie Barone had already flagged this.  Charlie also gets at the safe-harbor issue, namely that schools don’t have to meet the target completely anyway.  I left that alone because it seemed secondary to the main point and too complicated to write and because 36 percent is so low to start with the point seemed obvious enough.  

5 Replies to “Times Warp”

  1. Not only is ‘the 100% target arbitrary and all that’ but so is the test, so is the idea of government testing, and so is just about everything else when the government gets involved with eduation. Each kid has their own demand for learning that the corporative state is inherently unable to nurture. Public schools are hampered by politicization and the moral hazards of getting money for nuthin’ via taxation.

    Even if the edu-bureaucrats had the students’ interest in mind there would remain insurmountable obstacles to success. Public school dictators operate in a non-market environment, a nebulous place where profit-loss is banished, where there are distorted or nonexistent prices, and supply and demand are tortured. Of course there will be chaos. The whole idea of NCLB is a symptom of the predictably chaotic system called public schooling.

  2. I don’t understand your complaint. If there is 26% pass rate, and you have to increase the pass rate to 37%, then that’s a one year increase of 42%. Charlie Barone was even more inflamatory. Assuming he’s right about safe harbor and they just need a 6.6 point improvement, that would be a 22% improvement.

    I haven’t yet checked the original sources so let’s just say the school needs to improve the percentage passing by 1/5th or 2/5ths, butconceptual the situation is the same. Both goals are absurd.

    Dillon’s piece was clear that California bought into the “balloon mortgage” approach. But that doesn’t change the problem of your blame the victim approach. Had states not adopted those statistical tricks, more schools would have been failing earlier.

    You know that you can’t find real world examples of neighborhood schools producing the gains that you say are reasonable. When yiou level charges that are manifestly unfair, there are real-world results. The more impossible the task, and the more the schools will be embarrassed for failing to do the impossible, the more they use statistical tricks and counter-productive quick fixes.

    I can’t believe you actually believe your own rhetoric. I understand the politics of repeatedly leveling unfair charges. But if you had spent time in real classrooms, you would know that schools are different than hedge funds. To improve, schools need honest exchanges of information.

    Similarly, I don’t like the Times editorial position on NCLB, and I wish they could afford to expand their education coverage, and I call them on both. But I try to be fair when doing so.

    Dillon and his editors did a very professional job, and I think you know it. You’re just arguing the call. I suspect you are doing a nothing personal this is just your “spin” attack on the opposition.

    I have a hard time remembering anything unprofessional about Dillion’s reporting. Of course, there is a time for interviewing parents, but that wasn’t in Dillion’s p[iece. You know that. I think you know that you are throwing a low blow. You are doing it because you want to help kids. But I question your ends justifying the means logic. Dirty politics often wins. And by plenty of comparisons, your unfair attacks aren’t so all-fired dirty. But that doesn’t mean that dirty politics can both win and help poor kids.

  3. Hey John – since this is an evening for saying things to people’s faces :), come over the my site if you disagree with anything I said. Dillon got bad facts from an education policy expert who, like many others, knows better, and inflames the debate unnecessarily. I call ’em like I see ’em. The education policy debate deserves better than the liberal equivalents of Rush Limbaugh. Unlike Andy, I think the elites who are perpetuating bad info are at the heart of the problem, and Dillon is just a victim, though I doubt a wholly unwitting one.

  4. “29 percent is illustrative of something more akin to an epidemic”

    How would we know? Since every state defines proficient differently, we have a difficult time knowing.

    I perfectly understood the sniffles/pneumonia analogy. In St. Louis County, every single district missed AYP targets, “failing” so to speak. Does that mean St. Louis County students are receiving a poor education? Nope. It means districts large enough to count their subgroups struggle to pass each one in a state with high standards. Districts that missed one or only a few subgroups are put in the same category as those whose students overall struggled.

    Should every district work to make sure all students improve? Of course, but when the general public sees every district “failing,” even the public Ivy-League feeders, the whole accountability structure is disregarded.

  5. First of all I’ve always hated standardized tests. I also realize that each state defines proficient differently. And you could say that these tests are probably not good measures of the skills they are supposed to be sampling. Furthermore, the claim that huge jumps (double digits or even safe harbor worthy increases) might not have much to do with similar jumps in real skills rings sort of true, although I haven’t looked into it that closely.

    All of that being said I don’t think it is too much to ask for our kids to be able to pass these tests even if the tests aren’t any good. Frankly, most standardized tests are not all that rigorous. The standards are not all that high. If our kids were getting the education they should be getting then they would have the skills to pass these tests even if they are poorly constructed or not well aligned with standards or arbitrary in some other way. There is a lot more to learning than achieving on a standardized test but that doesn’t mean a kid shouldn’t be able to achieve on a standardized test. So I would say that 29 percent is troubling and 37 percent isn’t too much to ask and we should be striving for 100 percent no matter what. Who cares about the law? Isn’t this about saving lives?

    Finally, I find EduDiva’s comment a little troubling. The point of subgroups are to make sure that underperforming populations aren’t being hidden. If your subgroups are not meeting the standards then how good can the school be? Maybe the schools, the “Ivy-League feeders”, aren’t good schools at all. Maybe they are just lucky enough to have large populations of kids who would be going to ivy league schools no matter where they attended schools. All those Ivy parents should be worried about whether their great public schools are great because the school is adding value to their kids or if the schools are great because the kids are the ones adding value to their schools. Looking at how the subgroups are performing is at least one piece of how to figure out if the school is actually helping kids learn even if the upper middle class white kids are all passing the test anyway.

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