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FLUNKING THE TEST! Raising standards always sounds good—which is why many savants prescribe it: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 18, 2006

SKIRTS ON GORE: We expect to have our education site up and running in the next few weeks. At that point, we’ll continue to post here at THE HOWLER—when, for example, our analysts rail at columns like Maureen Dowd’s latest. Egad! Our staffers shook their heads when Dowd offered this reaction to Al Gore’s recent speech:
DOWD (1/18/06): The Democrats were throwing haymakers at the White House this week, but they will never succeed as long as they're perceived as the party in skirts.

Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton called the Bush administration on its apparently bottomless store of imperial sins. They made a lot of good points. They just didn't score any.

This trio, apparently jockeying for '08, are not the best messengers. They're loaded down with baggage.

Two of them, who could have stopped W. and Dick Cheney before they undid 230 years of American democracy, didn't, because they allowed themselves to be painted as girlie men.

During Campaign 2000, Gore “allowed himself to be painted as a girlie man,” Dowd laments. But she forgets to say who provided the paint—a harpy by the name of Maureen Dowd.

Yes, when it came to painting Gore as girlie, few were more deeply involved than Mo Dowd. Along with Frank Rich, she invented the ludicrous Love Story nonsense back in the fall of 1997. And two autumns later, she stood in the forefront as her class charged Gore with “girlie-man” crimes for dealing with vile Naomi Wolf. Dowd had long had a problem with Wolf, who is smarter, more sincere, and better-looking than she. Result? When it turned out that Wolf was advising Gore (she had also advised the ’96 Clinton campaign), Dowd invented fake facts and phony quotes, putting the skirts on poor Al. “[W]hen a man has to pony up a fortune to a woman to teach him how to be a man, that definitely takes the edge off his top-dogginess,” Dowd deliciously wrote—reciting the utterly fatuous line the RNC was enthusiastically pimping. Al Gore paid a woman to teach him to be a man! All the flunkies and hacks were reciting—but none with more feeling than Dowd.

For ourselves, we marveled this week as the liberal web thrilled to Monday’s speech by Gore. For ourselves, we were somewhat less impressed; we think Dems must do a better job of explaining what’s wrong with the eavesdropping matter. (Explaining to voters, not to themselves. Today’s fiery liberals are extremely good at knowing how to convince each other.) But how they all love Gore today! And how they all shut up when it mattered, when Dowd and her crew were waging the war which put George Bush in the White House!

Will these liberals ever report the most important press story of their time? Will they ever tell readers how George Bush made his unlikely way to the White House? Again this week, Eric Alterman thanked Ralph Nader for deciding the 2000 race. But why blame Nader—and leave out the press? After all, Nader had every right to run for president—but harpies like Dowd had no right to conduct the long, dissembling war which eventually put Vile Gore in his place. Indeed, Alterman wrote an entire chapter in What Liberal Media? describing the endless press corps war which eventually sent Bush to the White House. (This chapter was largely sourced to THE HOWLER.) But for some reason, even he now seems inclined to avoid discussing this important press story. And of course, other libs who thrilled to Gore this week would rather eat live worms in hell than discuss what happened back then, when they and their fine journals kept very quiet, changing the course of our lives.

Here at THE HOWLER, we spent years detailing this story, starting on the week it began—but today’s pious liberals refuse to discuss it. This week, they thrilled at the speech by Gore; back then, when it counted, they kept very quiet. When it counted, they let Maureen Dowd invent her wild tales. And they won’t discuss it, even this week, even when she forgets to say that it was she who put the skirts on Al Gore.

So go ahead, Atrios—rise in high dudgeon! Link to this post, then tell your readers about what Maureen Dowd did back then. We won’t even waste our time asking Josh or Kevin to do so. Today’s career liberals refuse to discuss this remarkable, history-changing matter. Result? This morning, a scribe absent-mindedly failed to say just who put those skirts on Al Gore.

FLUNKING THE TEST: Back in November, the Post’s Nick Anderson reported a key story from the trenches. Starting with this year’s ninth-grade class, Maryland students must pass a (lengthy) algebra test to get their high school diplomas. The “standards movement” was in high gear—and ninth-grade students knew it:

ANDERSON (11/9/05): Maryland's ninth-graders are all too aware of the stiff new challenge ahead: to earn a high school diploma, they'll have to prove their algebra smarts on a 140-minute examination.

"We're the first class to have to pass the big test," said Renaire Rivers, 14, an Algebra 1 student at Largo High School.

"You can't get out of high school without that," said classmate Cherise Payne, 13.

The kids were ready for battle! But as he continued, Anderson noted a troubling fact. “In recent years, when diplomas were not at stake for most test-takers, large numbers of Maryland students have fallen short of that goal,” he reported. “Just 54 percent of those who took first-year algebra last spring passed a state test...In Prince George's County, only 31 percent passed, including 12 percent at Largo High.” For the record, Prince Georges is one of Washington’s large suburban counties. Most of its students are minorities. Many of its students come from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds.

So what will happen when Maryland kids know they have to pass the test? This week, we got some early feedback. In Prince Georges, things have gone poorly for many algebra students. Indeed, many kids have been switched to a two-year program so they won’t flunk the state test this year:

ANDERSON (1/16/06): At least 2,500 ninth-graders in Prince George's County will abruptly move this week from a standard one-year algebra course into a two-year program, shielding the struggling students from a state graduation test this spring that officials said they were likely to fail.

The highly unusual shift comes midway through the school year in one of Washington's largest suburban school systems and in some respects runs counter to a regional trend of pushing students to take higher-level mathematics as early as possible.

One-fifth of the county's students who began high school in August in the bench-mark course Algebra 1 will be affected by the changes. The students had missed several classes in the first half of the year and received low grades.

“Starting Tuesday, those students will move into a retooled class called Algebraic Concepts,” Anderson wrote. “That will give them a one-year reprieve before facing the state test.” And yes, this affects large numbers of kids. At Parkdale High School, to cite one example, about 46 percent of algebra students were given this “one-year reprieve,” the scribe notes. Indeed, Anderson quoted Howard Burnett, interim Prince Georges superintendent. "We have to be honest with ourselves about this issue," Burnett said. “Ninth-graders across the country and across this county are failing and have been failing. It hasn't worked, the way we've been doing things. And so we have to start doing things differently.”

Burnett deserves credit for this frank statement, and for making this mid-course adjustment. Eventually, the county may find that the bulk of its students really can pass that new algebra test. And this bump in the road doesn’t necessarily mean that the state of Maryland acted unwisely in creating this new graduation requirement. It may turn out that this new, tougher standard is a good thing for Maryland students.

But things may not turn out that way, and this episode helps us consider a problem with the whole “standards movement.” It’s pleasing to say that “all children can learn,” and it’s always easy—and very crowd-pleasing—to insist on new, tougher standards. But just how much can all children learn? And how many kids can meet some new standard? In particular, can all Maryland high school students learn enough to pass the state’s algebra test? We’ll find out in the years ahead—and we may find out in the negative.

Of course, if we get this unwelcome result, various people will know who to blame. For example, high school teachers will blame middle school teachers, something we already see in Anderson’s report this week:

ANDERSON (1/16/06): Joseph Sutton, a ninth-grade algebra teacher at Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale, said too many students arrive at high school with poor fundamentals. "These are kids that got pushed through or socially promoted, and now they're really hurting," Sutton said. "They're just not ready for a course like this."
In the same vein, middle school teachers will blame grade school teachers—and proponents of the “standards movement” will inferentially blame teachers in general. Meanwhile, everyone will pretend they don’t know why we have “social promotion.”

For the record, Joseph Sutton is surely right on all points. There probably are a lot of ninth-graders who have very poor math fundamentals. Yes, these kids got “social promotions;” and yes, these students probably weren’t ready for Algebra 1. This raises several obvious questions. What occurred in the lower grades to explain their lack of basic math knowledge? And, of course, that other question: Given their lack of basic skills, should they have been placed in this course? It sounded great—it really felt good—when we said they’d all take Algebra 1. But given the way our world really works, was this a wise decision?

We can’t answer those particular questions. But what goes on in the lower grades in the Prince Georges County schools? More important: What goes on in those grades that is actually correctable? We’ll try to answer such questions all year. But loudmouth seers of the “standards movement” rarely bother with matters like that. They simply insist that we raise those standards, then they pleasingly bash the schools when kids fail to meet the new standards. But how can we help those students learn? How can we help those schools meet standards? Movement leaders rarely say. It’s great work if you can get it.

CONTRASTING REACTIONS: We cheered the reaction of one school board member. She asked an important question:

ANDERSON (1/16/06): [S]chool board member Abby L.W. Crowley (Greenbelt) cautioned that the action will only postpone an academic reckoning. "I imagine that there will be students who do what the school system recommends and still fail the course or the test in grade 10," Crowley said. "What about them?"
Indeed. What about kids who do their best but may still end up flunking the test? Do we really deny them diplomas—treat them as if they were drop-outs? (Trust us—their younger siblings soon will be.) We were also intrigued by contrasting reactions among two groups of students:
ANDERSON (continuing directly): How did the students react? "Some were relieved because it was too difficult in algebra," said Carey Pico, a High Point math teacher. "Others were clasping their algebra books as I have never seen, in hopes of having one more chance to prove their ability to succeed."
We admire those who were clasping their books—but, because we’ve actually been there, we feel the pain of students who were relieved. Is it possible that some of these students belonged in this course—and other students simply didn’t? Too bad! “Raising standards” always sounds good, which is why many savants prescribe it.

TOMORROW: How to read literacy—Part 3.