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Daily Howler: Spellings' factual claims are correct. But there's a key flaw in her logic
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TESTING SPELLINGS! Spellings’ factual claims are correct. But there’s a key flaw in her logic: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 14, 2009

Contradiction: Sorrowful, ain’t it? On its front page, the New York Times presents this striking report, by Dexter Filkins, about the education of girls in Afghanistan. But alas! On its op-ed page, the paper presents this typical mess, by a famous American scribe whose “education” has been vastly squandered.

In her last four grafs, Maureen Dowd types her latest novel. Please note: There’s no evidence, anywhere in her column, suggesting that her novel is true. Who knows? Maybe Dowd “had a feeling” this day, like Margaret Carlson before her. Perhaps just a thrill up the leg?

Sorrowful, ain’t it? Girls in one country risk death to learn. In another land, scribes play the fool.

TESTING SPELLINGS: Margaret Spellings made several important claims in yesterday’s “Dear Arne” letter (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/13/09). The letter appeared in the form of a column on the Washington Post’s op-ed page. The outgoing education secretary’s claims included these:

  • On the national level, “Test scores in reading and math have reached record highs.”
  • As superintendent of schools in Chicago, Obama nominee Arne Duncan “achieved results for Chicago’s schoolchildren.”
  • On the national level, those record-high test scores have occurred because of No Child Left Behind. Spellings’ claim was clearly implied in this fuller statement: “Is it [No Child Left Behind] working? Yes. Test scores in reading and math have reached record highs.”

Those were three of Spellings’ major claims; we thought it might be worth checking their accuracy. Let’s start with the good news involved in those national test scores:

National test scores: On the national level, have test scores in reading and math reached record highs? We assume that Spellings refers to test scores produced as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a competent, largely non-politicized federal program known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” (For the NAEP web site, click here.) Here’s the good news: In both reading and math, NAEP test scores in 2007 were higher than ever before. That’s true for students as a whole; it’s also true for whites, for blacks and for Hispanics when these groups are considered separately. (These are the most recent NAEP scores. The next set of tests will be given this year.) This is true in both reading and math, at both grade levels tested (grades 4 and 8.) And so, according to results from the NAEP, Spellings’ first claim is factually accurate. Test scores in both reading and math have reached record highs. (But hold on. There will be a catch.)

Duncan’s big shoulders: How about Spellings’ second claim—the claim that Duncan “achieved results for Chicago’s schoolchildren.” Here the logic starts to get murky (more below)—but NAEP test scores have, in fact, gone up in Chicago in the years since Duncan became superintendent in June 2001. Chicago happens to be one of ten cities studied by NAEP as part of its “Trial Urban District Assessment.” And sure enough: The city’s test scores have gone up in both reading and math, in both grade levels tested, since Duncan became the main man.

So far, it’s just as Spellings said and implied: National test scores have risen in recent years, to “record highs” in both reading and math. Scores in Chicago did go up in the years of Duncan’s tenure. And we think the NAEP is more reliable (more competent, less politicized) than the typical state-run, statewide testing program. But this brings us back to Spellings’ third major claim—and to the large problem with her logic. In her column, Spellings clearly implied that those record-high test scores were the fruit of No Child Left Behind. But, whatever one thinks of that national program, this claim is an obvious stretch. Whatever one thinks of that national program, Spellings’ logic falls apart when she makes this self-glorying claim:

The fruit of No Child Left Behind: What’s the problem with Spellings’ claim? Just this: National test scores were already rising to “record highs” in the years before No Child Left Behind; essentially, the nation’s students have been producing “record scores” ever since NAEP began gathering data in 1971! (No Child Left Behind became law in 2001.) That is important good news, of course—but it undermines Spellings’ implied claim, the claim that last year’s “record-high” scores were the fruit of No Child Left Behind. For one example, click down to page ten of the current NAEP “Reading Report Card” to see “scale scores” for the nation’s fourth-graders, going back to 1992. (Headline: “Most racial/ethnic groups show improvement.”) You will see that reading scores were improving for whites, for blacks and for Hispanics in the ten years before the 2002 tests—the first tests after No Child Left Behind became law. There is no sign of any special score bump in the years since NCLB became law. Scores had been rising before the act passed. Scores continued to rise after that, at roughly similar rates.

(Somewhat similarly, it’s hard to identify unusual score gains associated with Duncan’s tenure in Chicago. We don’t attempt, in any way, to denigrate his work in that city. But scores were rising in other big cities, as in the nation as a whole, during the period when he was in charge. We look forward, eagerly, to Duncan’s tenure as Ed Sec. But we should proceed with care when we seem to attribute authorship to score gains—or to score drops, for that matter.)

Spellings made some important claims in her column; we thought those claims were worth examining. For our money, the lady misbehaves—politicizes the nation’s schools—with her implied claim about the effects of No Child Left Behind. (We’d suggest that she be asked to spend a few moments standing alone in the corner. She’ll have to exit the Oval Office, of course, before she can serve this term.) We don’t offer this as a judgment about the various parts of No Child Left behind; indeed, we think some parts of the act are constructive. We offer this as a rebuke to those who would politicize such important matters.

But what about Spellings’ other claim—that murky claim about “teaching to [sic] grade level?” Addressing Duncan, Spellings spoke for the nation’s parents: “They recognize, as do you and President-elect Obama, that when we raise expectations, we achieve results.”

When we raise expectations, we achieve results. That’s a very familiar claim. But what does it actually mean?

Tomorrow: About expectations/grade level.