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WILL THE REAL MAURY SCHOOL PLEASE STAND UP! What do Maury kids really need? They need their state to stop: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 10, 2006

STORY TO DATE— VIRGINIA’S TEST SCORES: Here’s the story to date:

Maury Elementary of Alexandria, Virginia is a small but high-profile public school. (The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews has profiled Maury on three separate occasions, dating back to April 2004.) But uh-oh! In the spring of 2005, only 5 of Maury’s 19 third-graders passed Virginia’s state reading test. But thanks to a bizarre statistical procedure, the state reported something vastly different; it reported that 17 out of 19 third-graders had passed the reading test! (This absurd statistical procedure has been in place since 2001. Presumably, it has inflated scores all over the state.) And there’s more: After we discussed this matter last month, the state of Virginia disabled its entire system for reporting school test scores. At present, the state is reporting no school test scores at all. Click here for its uninformative announcement:

School, Division, and State Report Cards 2005
(Temporarily unavailable— thank you for your patience)
Repeat: The nation’s twelfth-largest state has taken down its entire reporting system. Test scores have been unavailable for at least a week— perhaps longer.

“Thank you for your patience,” the state says. But at some point, we’re going to lose our patience with state and national news orgs. Our twelfth-largest state has disabled its scores— and no one seems to want to report it! Just as a reality check, we spoke this week with a former editor/education writer for a major U.S. daily. His reaction was quick; the fact that a major state took down its scores was “a national story,” he said. (He expressed surprise that no one had reported it.) This leaves aside the reason for Virginia’s action, by the way. The fact that Virginia took down its scores is a news story in itself, this man said.

We’re eager to praise the first news org which gets off its keister and reports this story. We’ve been trying to generate interest. So far, all is silent.

NORFOLK, DO YOU HAVE A PROBLEM: Speaking of national stories, the Norfolk schools received a major prize last September. This was paragraph one of the official announcement:

The Broad Foundation announced Sept. 20 that Norfolk Public Schools is the winner of the 2005 Broad Prize for Urban Education, the largest education prize in the country awarded to the most outstanding urban school districts. Founder Eli Broad was joined by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings at the Library of Congress in making the announcement.
"Norfolk Public Schools have made remarkable progress in the past four years, demonstrating not only high achievement by all student groups but also greater improvement than similar districts in the state," Broad said. In the past four years! Did Norfolk recorded its score gains the way Maury did— due to Virginia’s statistical gimmickry? We have no idea what the answer is— and, of course, we’re no longer able to examine Norfolk’s scores.

"Norfolk's success can be attributed to the district's strong leadership,” Broad said. But could Norfolk’s success really be due to Virginia’s clownish “Recovery Bonus?” We don’t have the slightest idea. When will news orgs— state and national— get off their duffs and report?

Special report: Will the real Maury School please stand up!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Read each part of our current series:

Part 1: Here at the Howler, we like Jay Mathews. But this time, Jay just has it wrong. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/06.

Part 2: Jay misstates Virginia’s procedure— a procedure which adds up to fraud. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/8/06.

Part 3: Thanks to Virginia’s “Recovery Bonus,” some schools are better than perfect! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/9/06.

PART 4— THEY NEED THEIR STATE TO STOP: An e-mailer complained about Wednesday’s post in a way we thought worth discussing. Suppose the situation at Maury really had worked the way Jay Mathews thought? Suppose third-graders who flunked the state reading test simply got to take it again? As you’ll recall, that’s the process Jay described in last week’s follow-up story:
MATHEWS (2/28/06): I reconstructed what happened with the help of Virginia state officials. When Maury's 19 third-graders took the English test the first time last spring, five passed and 14 did not...The school worked with the third-graders who did not pass it and gave them a retest, and 12 passed on that second try.
We said that procedure might have technical problems, but that it basically made good sense (especially compared to the ludicrous process which the school really seems to have followed). But would that process have made good sense? One e-mailer raised objections— some good, then some that were not:
E-MAIL: How would that make “perfect good sense?” The school's third grade (and pre-third grade) educational program produced kids who couldn't pass a reading test. So they "worked with" the ones that didn't pass, re-tested them, and then they passed. Well, that's great for the 14 who got extra help to pass the test on their second try; but were any changes made to the educational program that produced such abysmal results in the first place? And they only tested 19 third-graders out of all of the third-graders in the entire school— and only worked with 14 kids out of that group of 19, again out of ALL of the third-graders in the entire school...
Oops. At this point, the mailer erred; in fact, those 19 kids were the entire third-grade class in this small Alexandria school (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/06). But if the mailer was wrong about this, we liked the scare quotes he used in the passage we’ve highlighted. The school “worked with” the students who failed, he said— and then, these students passed the retest. (Remember— this seems to be a hypothetical; this doesn’t seem to be what happened.) In truth, we ourselves were struck by this part of Jay’s report the first time we read it. What would we have thought if something like this had happened at Maury? Simple: We would have been extremely skeptical about the results of those retests; we would have wondered what really happened when the school “worked with” those students. Over the years, we’ve seen lots of schools cheat, in a whole lot of ways— and we’ve seen a lot of scribes fail to notice. So yes, without question, we would have wondered what happened when Maury“worked with” those kids. As the mailer asked (about this hypothetical): What had they done in those few extra weeks that they hadn’t achieved in three years?

As we’ve noted, we’re always suspicious of stories like this— and clearly, Jay basically isn’t. This time, our suspicions turned out to well-founded; next time, a set of good test scores may turn out to just be a set of good test scores. (Although there are many ways to cheat on a test which can’t be detected from looking through data.) At any rate, education writers should always be skeptical; it’s basic journalistic practice. Like the mailer, we were struck by the fact that Jay didn’t seem inclined to wonder about what had transpired.

That said, we thought Jay was too upbeat one other time, in a way that’s very much worth discussing. When he neared the end of his piece, he uttered a semi-magical phrase which has become iconic:

MATHEWS (2/28/06): Somerby derided the federal requirement of annual improvement because "especially in a small school like Maury, one group of third-graders may not be as capable as the group from the previous year.” That is a good point. Both the states and the federal government are moving toward a cohort assessment system where progress will be measured by how much this year's fourth grade improved over the performance of those same children the year before.

But I object to one implication of Somerby's remark— that children are stuck with whatever capability they have demonstrated by third grade and cannot be expected to get much better. Since I wandered into Garfield High School 23 years ago and found that that inner city Los Angeles school was outperforming all but four high schools in the country in Advanced Placement test participation, and beating the national passing rate on the tests, I have been convinced that the majority of Americans are wrong to think kids from low-income backgrounds cannot be expected to achieve at high levels. And this column, as regular readers know, has been full of other examples of that, because it is No 1 on my list of obsessions.

Here we see the mark of the slightly-too-ardent believer; having first said that we made “a good point,” Jay quickly “objected” to it! In fact, we didn’t imply that “children are stuck with whatever capability they have demonstrated by third grade and cannot be expected to get much better;” indeed, we’re not sure we even know what that means. In truth, we were only noting an obvious fact— some groups of third-graders are better students than others. It takes an intriguing turn of mind to “object” to something so obvious.

But it also takes a turn of mind to utter that new incantation: “I have been convinced that...Americans are wrong to think kids from low-income backgrounds cannot be expected to achieve at high levels.” Low-income kids can achieve at high levels! It’s a phrase that makes us feel very good— and these days, we get to feel good almost constantly. For example, new Prince George’s superintendent John Deasy invoked the high-minded phrase last week. The Post’s Nick Anderson reported (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/3/06):

ANDERSON (3/3/06): Deasy, in a telephone interview, said he was thinking beyond high school diplomas toward a "college-going culture." He said he wanted to promote an "absolute, unified expectation that all kids can learn at high levels," so that "every kid gets the fundamental civil right to be ready to go to college.”
But is it true? Is it true that “all kids can learn at high levels?” In fact, this pleasing claim is so hopelessly vague it’s hard to know just how to answer. For ourselves, we’re annoyed when people invoke this phrase; we hear them gaining Brownie points at the expense of struggling children. But before we explain that incomparable reaction, we’ll only note that we aren’t alone when we make this general judgment.

All kids can learn at high levels! Surely, a man who expresses such thoughts is a good, decent, high-minded person! Sorry, it just doesn’t strike us that way. That’s why we were glad to see Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom roll their eyes at the lofty phrase in their valuable book from 2003, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning:

THERNSTROM AND THERNSTROM (page 196): A more recent survey...found that 80 percent of teachers in schools that were at least two-thirds minority believed “all children can learn,” as compared with 82 percent of those in schools with few minority pupils. There was no significant difference, in other words. On the other hand, the endorsement of the innocuous platitude that “all children can learn” probably means almost nothing. A seemingly self-evident truth, it has become a mantra endlessly repeated in schools of education and by school administrators and teachers.
That isn’t quite our view of this matter, but we’re glad they rolled their eyes all the same. By contrast, in his own recent book (The Shame of the Nation), Jonathan Kozol expressed real anger at some who mouth this pleasing phrase. In this passage, he’s taking a whack at No Child Left Behind advocates:
KOZOL (page 266): “ALL CHILDREN CAN LEARN!” the advocates for this agenda say hypnotically, as if the tireless reiteration of this slogan could deliver to low-income children the same clear and decent infrastructure and the amplitude of cultural provision by experienced instructors that we give the children of the privileged. If the officials who repeat this incantation honestly believe all kids can learn, why aren’t they fighting to make sure these kids can learn in the same good schools their own children attend? To isolate the victim, and shortchange the victim, and then tell him he can “learn to his potential” if he and his teachers just try hard enough, is one of the bizarre political performances that’s very much in fashion in our nation’s capital today.
We don’t share Jonathan’s general view regarding advocates of NCLB. But this passage suggests why we’re so annoyed by this high-minded bromide.

Is it true? Can “all children learn at high levels,” the more expansive claim made by Jay and by Deasy? To this, we give the obvious answer: They can’t all learn at high levels right now! In Los Angeles, for example, Gabriela wasn’t ready “to learn at high levels;” what she needed instead was a fourth-grade review, and she flunked six times when she didn’t get it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/06.) And at Maury, third-graders who failed the state reading test most likely aren’t ready to “learn at high levels”— no matter how hard their state, their principal, and their local newspaper work to pretend that they are.

It’s disgusting to read that pleasing phrase used to obscure the needs of real children— children who desperately, desperately need to be given real help. Indeed, in that stunning phrase from that latest new study, we meet a generic bunch who also aren’t ready to “learn at high levels:”

CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
Kids who read “three grade levels behind” in fourth grade are plainly not ready to “learn at high levels.” They need a different kind of help. And they desperately need something else— they desperately need their own state to stop lying. They desperately need their own bloomin’ state to stop lying about them and their interests.

Maury’s third-graders bombed on that test. They plainly weren’t ready to “learn on high levels.” Every time we lie about that, we add to their failure and despair. We’ll be honest: It makes us sick when high-minded people toss off this cheap, easy phrase.

What do Maury kids really need? They need their own state to stop the faking; to put up the test scores; and to attend to their actual interests. It’s manifestly time for this state to let the real Maury stand up.

BASIC LINKS: On February 2, Maury hit the top of the Post’s front page. You know what to do—just click here.

We questioned this story the following week, See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/06, then click forward from there.

Jay followed up on February 28. Click here and you can read every word.

We have been responding all this week— and the state of Virginia’s has killed all its scores. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/06, for our first installment.