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THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT (ALMOST) GETS IT RIGHT! In our view, Edds is a tiny bit soft. But she (almost) gets it right: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MARCH 20, 2006

STARTING TOMORROW—MILWAUKEE’S ALLEGED FINEST: On March 7, John Tierney wrote a New York Times column praising Milwaukee’s school voucher program—the largest such program in the nation. Tomorrow, we start a four-part series on that column. We’ll almost surely do a second series on closely-related issues next week.

Here at THE HOWLER, we’re slightly inclined to favor vouchers—if a city’s program is closely regulated. But we’ve never thought that vouchers or charters hold the key to the problems of low-income education. Our two-week review of Tierney’s column will help show why we think that. Beyond that, we’ll examine the state of some of the 105 schools which currently receive voucher payments in Milwaukee. Last year, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel did a remarkable series on this general topic—and the series produced little national buzz. As with Gabriela, so with Milwaukee—manifestly, the larger society no longer cares about children in low-income schools. We’ll spend two weeks on Tierney’s column. See if we don’t convince you.

REMEMBERING GABRIELA: The Los Angeles Times did some superb reporting about that city’s low-income schools. For Part 1 of our report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/06.

Continuing story: Yes, Virginia!

THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT (ALMOST) GETS IT RIGHT: We think it’s soft, but at least it’s a start! In yesterday’s (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, Margaret Edds devoted her Sunday column to those puzzling Virginia state test scores. Headline: “Web watchdog sniffs out SOL quirk.” SOL? That’s would be the (unfortunate) acronym for Virginia’s high-stakes testing program—the program which produced that bogus “passing rate” for one low-income grade school last year.

How absurd is the “quirk” in the state testing program—the “quirk” we’ve explored in recent weeks? Edds chides us a bit for calling the state’s behavior “utterly ludicrous” and even “fraudulent.” We don’t mean to rassle with Edds, who deserves a great deal of credit for bringing this problem to readers’ attention. But in lieu of the punishing four-part review with which we threatened our readers last Friday, let’s review what happened here one final time. Let’s recall why we used that tangy language—the language Edds finds a bit tough.

The Washington Post gets taken: On February 2, the Washington Post featured Maury Elementary (Alexandria, Virginia) in an upbeat, top-of-the-front-page report, a story complete with smiling pictures of gorgeous kids from the low-income school (all basic links below). Indeed, the school was described as “a study in pride, progress” in the Post’s front-page headline. But is this school—a school which is full of deserving kids—aptly described as “a study in pride?” In fact, in last year’s statewide testing, Maury Elementary had the second-lowest passing rate in the state of Virginia in third-grade reading! (Only two grade levels were tested—third and fifth.) At Maury, 27 percent of third-grade students passed the statewide reading test. Across the state, the passing rate was almost three times as high—77 percent! And yes—when the second-lowest school in this state is praised on page one as a “study in pride,” we think that situation is wholly absurd. We think it’s disgraceful—and ludicrous.

The Washington Post gets taken again. Staring on February 6, we did a series of reports noting the problems with the Post’s report. And we began to explain the ludicrous Virginia state policy which had led to the Post’s absurd story. Result? On February 28, Post education reporter Jay Mathews did a second, on-line report about Maury—and totally bungled the story again! As is now clear (from Edds column, for example), Mathews completely misdescribed the Virginia policy which had led to his original report. The Post had now bungled this story two times. Ludicrous? You be the judge.

Virginia’s inexcusable, fraudulent policy. How did Mathews, a high-profile education reporter, manage to get this story wrong twice? In part, the answer lies with the state’s inexcusable testing policy—a policy which was clearly designed to inflate the passing rates of the state’s low-scoring schools. How was Mathews led to believe that Maury was “a study in pride?” Here’s part of what happened—and no, once again, we really aren’t making this up:

In the spring of 2005, 19 third-graders took Virginia’s third-grade reading test at Maury. (It’s a small school.) Only five of these third-graders passed, producing that 27 percent passing rate, the second-lowest in the state. But so what? Under a state policy so absurd that many people refuse to believe it exists, an unspecified number of fourth-grade students also took the third-grade test at Maury. When twelve of these fourth-grade students passed the third-grade test, that number—“12"—was added to the five third-graders who actually passed. Incredibly, the state then announced that 17 out of 19 third-graders had passed the reading test—although, as we have already seen, the actual figure was 5 of 19. To describe this type of reporting as a “fraud” is to be too kind to the state. As we’ve noted, this Virginia state policy is so absurd that people routinely refuse to believe it exists. In the last few weeks, we found no education reporters in Virginia who were able (or willing) to describe it accurately. In part, the sheer absurdity of this procedure may explain why Mathews bungled this story, even on his second attempt. It’s very hard for rational people to understand that this policy exists.

The sheer absurdity of the state policy: Were we wrong to call this policy “utterly ludicrous?” Here’s how foolish this policy was: In the state’s technical manual, administrators were told what to do if a school’s passing rate exceeded 100 percent! (Answer: “Cap” the passing rate at 100!) And yes, that nonsense actually happened. Under this absurd state policy, some schools were doing so well that their passing rates exceeded perfection! “Utterly ludicrous?” It’s hard to believe that a scribe would recoil from such an obvious judgment.

So yes, we may have been too kind when we said this situation was “utterly ludicrous.” What happened in this remarkable story? The second-lowest school in the state was hailed on the Washington Post’s front page. When the Post was alerted to the problem, it followed up—and bungled again. Meanwhile, Maury parents—and the Post’s readers—were grossly misled about basic facts. In third-grade reading (only two grade levels were tested), Maury had the second-lowest passing rate in the entire state of Virginia. But so what? Incredibly, parents were told their school was a smashing success—and so were the Post’s misled readers.

Before we close, let’s revisit one more part of this tale. This too is utterly ludicrous:

The silence of the lamb-chops: This ludicrous story didn’t appear on page A19 of some small local paper. It appeared on the front page of the Washington Post, a famous newspaper which is published in the capital city of Think-Tank America. And yet, not a single “education expert” said a word about this report. Because we actually understand these matters, we’re always suspicious of stories like this—stories which make it sound like an “energetic new principal” can transform a low-scoring school by installing new carpets and smiling at children. (We’ve had plenty of practice debunking such stories—this is a type of urban legend which big newspapers won’t stop recycling.) Because we actually understand these matters, we always fact-check stories like this—and we routinely find, as we did in this case, that the story is pleasing, but bogus. But to all appearances, not a singe “education expert” bothered to fact-check Mathews’ original report. Meanwhile, we couldn’t find a single Virginia education writer who seemed to know how this state policy worked—a policy which had been inflating the state’s passing rates for four years. “Utterly ludicrous?” What words would you employ to describe this situation?

Yes, this story is remarkable—except for the fact that it’s so routine. Big news orgs have been selling these stories over the course of the past thirty-five years—stories which misinform the public and offer utterly false reassurance about the state of our low-income schools. (As we reported, we found similar bogus reports in that high-profile, two-hour PBS special on “schools that work” last fall. Link below.) Let’s say it again, this one last time: At Maury Elementary, only 5 out of 19 third-graders passed the state reading test—and the state pretended it was really 17 out of 19! How do we know that this was “fraud?” Let’s borrow the words of the late Sam Ervin. We know this “because we speak the English language—it’s our mother tongue.”

SOME BONUS POINTS: In this final review, let’s go over some points from Edds’ column—and a few other points besides. By the way, let’s say it again. We do think that Edds is too soft on the Virginia DOE. But she deserves a lot of credit for raising this issue in her column. The Virginian-Pilot deserves credit too:

Giving credit for remediation: Was this state policy “utterly ludicrous?” At one point, Edds records the state’s counterargument:

EDDS (3/19/06): The crux of the counterargument is that the schools where this made a difference are some of the toughest educational challenges in Virginia. If those schools were able to rescue a child who couldn’t read, even if a year late, that’s cause for celebration. Giving such schools credit for remedial success has been a critical incentive for them to keep trying.
But the problem here isn’t the state’s attempt to provide “remediation” (to state the obvious, attempts at “remediation” go on every day in low-income schools in every state). The problem was the inexcusable way the state reported the results of this process. If the state wanted to report the number of fourth-grade students who passed the third-grade test one year late, it could have done so in a straightforward way. But it chose to do something totally different; it chose to “report” these “remediations” in a way which was guaranteed to mislead. Let’s state the obvious: Unless the state’s technical people are wholly incompetent, they of course understood that this procedure would produce bogus passing rates—even “passing rates” which exceeded 100 percent! The problem wasn’t the attempt at “remediation”—the problem was the subsequent reporting, which was, in simple English, a case of outright fraud.

Maury was an extreme example: As she continues, Edds makes some accurate points (although we wouldn’t say “anomaly”):

EDDS (continuing directly): Two factors worth weighing: The huge gap between the third-grade pass rate and the accreditation score at Maury appears to be an anomaly. I checked out several schools in Richmond and Norfolk. Far more typical was Bowling Park Elementary in Norfolk, which had an accreditation score of 87 percent in English and pass rates of 74 percent in third grade and 76 percent in fifth grade.

Bowling Park would have qualified for accreditation in English with or without the added scores.

Yes, Maury’s “hugely” inflated passing rate was an extreme case; we ourselves have found no other school whose passing rates were inflated so much (although they may exist). But in large part, this is fairly obvious. Above-average schools have little to gain from this absurd procedure; on these fairly easy state tests, their actual, un-inflated passing rates will be close to 100 percent. (Statewide, 77 percent of Virginia students passed last year’s third-grade reading test; 85 percent passed the fifth-grade test.) This absurd statistical procedure was designed to inflate the passing rates of the state’s low-scoring schools—schools like Maury, whose 27 percent passing rate magically became a 92, placing it on page one of the Post. Simply put, this procedure was designed to fool us about the state’s low-income schools—and it plainly has had its intended effect. Meanwhile, Edds almost seems to excuse the smaller degree of rate inflation found at a school like Bowling Park. This school’s real passing rate was 75 percent—and the state told parents it was 87! Because this rate-inflation is less than Maury’s, Edds almost seems to suggest that it’s OK. Let’s be clear—it isn’t.

The policy is changing: As she continues, Edds notes another point—the policy will change this year. (For the first time, Virginia’s fourth-graders will be tested with their own fourth-grade test.) But note the kooky new policy which will exist:

EDDS (continuing directly): Second, the practice is slated to change this spring. Fourth-grade success will still be reflected in third-grade scores, but the extra participants will be counted in the denominator as well as the numerator of the calculation. We’ll know by the end of the summer whether that brings about a big dip in accreditation ratings in challenged school divisions.
Let’s simplify a bit, as Edds did: If this new policy had been in effect last year, Maury would have reported that 17 out of 31 third-graders passed the reading test. But this too would have been absurd—there were only 19 third-graders in all! The rate-inflation would have been less—but this too would have been bizarre reporting. Virginia can’t seem to wean itself from these absurd reporting procedures—procedures guaranteed to misinform the public, and to inflate passing rates.

Three more points, and then we’re done:

The state of reporters’ knowledge: Did Virginia’s education reporters understand these absurd procedures? We have no ultimate way of knowing. Last week, we spoke with education activist Mickey VanDerwerker, who has been working these issues for years (click here for her group’s web site). VanDerwerker is extremely well-informed and quite fair-and-balanced; she told us that her group has raised these issues with Virginia’s major newspapers. She also told us that her group had raised these issues in the past with Jay Mathews, who misreported this story two times. VanDerwerker told us that, in her judgment, Mathews has always understood this procedure. In an e-mail, Mathews praised VanDerwerker, but said he didn’t recall such conversations when the Maury issue arose. (“At my age, the brain cells die fast, so it is possible Mickey told me about this and I forgot. We haven't had a spoken conversation in at least two years, so that is highly likely that the memory was gone if she remembers this as a live conversation. She is more likely to send me interesting stuff by email, and I also don't remember anything from her on this. But if she says she told me, it must be true. She is an honorable person. But that information was no longer in my brain when I encountered your fine piece.”) We share the old school system tie with Jay, and we take him at his word. But man alive! Does the Washington Post ever owe its readers a detailed explanation about this state policy!

What it means to pass these tests: Some readers have drawn a false conclusion about these Virginia state tests. They have said things like this: “Well, at least we know that Maury’s fourth-graders are reading on third-grade level. They’re not three years behind, as in that recent study.” Careful, readers! We know of no claim or indication that a child must be “reading on third-grade level” to pass the third-grade reading test. These are fairly easy tests, as we see from the high statewide passing rates. It isn’t as easy to measure a child’s “reading level” as it is to measure his height or his weight. But we would not assume that a child is “reading on third-grade level” because he passed the third-grade test.

The 27 percent solution: Finally, a semi-trivial point which seems to capture many aspects of this remarkable story. Some readers have noted an irrefutable point; if 5 out of 19 third-graders passed, that is not 27 percent. Indeed—it’s 26.3 percent, and we assume that the state simply rounded up on the Maury “school report card.” Yes, that’s a violation of grade-school math, but then, what else is new in this story? As school orgs have done since sometime around 1970, the state of Virginia broke many rules of math and logic in its desire to produce higher test scores. Repeat—this has been going on for thirty-five years, with big newspapers often agreeing not to notice. There’s a word for this—and yes, that word’s “fraud.” But then, low-income children simply don’t count—as we prove when we’re so willing to peddle false tales about their schools and their interests.

Yes, these phony tales have been legion for decades—and no one seems to know it but us! In this case, national experts and Virginia reporters stared into air at the Post’s bungled story. We checked the data—but no one else did! We think this conduct is utterly ludicrous—and it’s a continuing fraud, a fraud which continues to damage the interests of the children who simply don’t count.

BASIC LINKS: On February 2, Maury Elementary 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.

Post reporter Jay Mathews followed up on February 28. Click here to read every word.

We responded to Mathews II. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/06, for our first installment.

At long last, the facts became clear last week. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/16/06.

Last fall, a PBS program had similar problems. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/05—then just keep clicking. For weeks.

To access Virginia’s “school report cards,” we’ll suggest that you simply click here.