Joel Klein gave a striking reply: Two Saturdays ago, we reviewed Dianne Ravitchs op-ed piece, in the New York Times, about the New York City schools. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/11/09. For Ravitchs piece, just click here.
On April 16, the Times published a letter from Joel Klein in response to Ravitchs piece. Klein is chancellor of New York City Schools. We thought one part of his response was especially strikingwas truly remarkable.
Quick overview: About half Kleins letter dealt with the topic of drop-out/graduation rates. As we noted, this is a difficult technical matter. Wed like to see the New York Times do more reporting on it.
The most striking part of Kleins response came in the passage we offer below. In the first paragraph, he comments on New York Citys scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), the so-called nations report card. In the second paragraph, he comments on New York Citys recent performance on the state of New Yorks statewide tests:
KLEIN (4/16/09): The national tests she cites [the NAEP] are not the measure of federal accountability, are given only to a small sample of schools, and are not aligned with New York State standards and therefore with what we teach in our classrooms. (That said, our fourth-grade scores on those tests are strong.)
New York City's gains on state tests have substantially and consistently exceeded gains made throughout the rest of the state during mayoral control. Even if those tests have gotten easier, as Ms. Ravitch claims without evidence, they have gotten easier for everyone.
Some of Kleins comments about the NAEP strike us as slightly odd. That said, we did think that Ravitchs piece tended to understate New York Citys success on those tests. [T]he statewide scores on the N.A.E.P. are as flat as New York City's, Ravitch wrote in her piece. For ourselves, wed regard that statement as a bit of a stretch. Having suggested the NAEP is no doggone good, Klein obliquely challenged Kleins gloomy assessment.
But the statement by Klein which we have highlighted struck us as truly remarkable. In that paragraph, he is discussing the annual statewide tests administered by the state of the New York. In some recent years, questions have surfaced about those tests. Scores have risen across the state, with some teachers claiming that scores had risen because the tests had gotten easier. (To recall one example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/06/05). Because New York City has played a key role in recent debates about testing and standardsbecause sweeping claims have been made about what New York Citys scores gains meanthese are very important questions.
Thats why we were struck by the statement we have highlighted.
Klein claims that New York Citys recent score gains have been substantially larger than those of the state as a whole. Because the state of New York maintains a gruesome reporting system, we have given up on trying to fact-check this claim. Other statesMaryland, North Carolina, Washingtonmaintain highly informative, user-friendly web sites to report statewide test scores. The state of New York is a whole different ball game. This particular state almost seems determined to keep its results in the dark.
That said, note Kleins comment about the claim that New Yorks statewide tests have gotten easier.Even if those tests have gotten easier, as Ms. Ravitch claims without evidence, they have gotten easier for everyone, Klein wrote in his letter. (Our state tests are, unfortunately, exemplars of grade inflation, Ravitch had written.) We dont mean this as a criticism of Klein, but that is a truly remarkable statement. Even Klein, the chancellor of New York Citys schools, is unwilling to say whether New Yorks statewide tests have gotten easier!
Klein is a very key playerand hes very smart. Even he doesnt seem to know if the states tests have been dumbed down!
Lets repeat a few key points about this essential question:
This question, which is very basic, shouldnt be a matter of guesswork. Any test-maker should be able to demonstrate that a given years tests are as difficult as the previous years tests (are equivalent to the previous years tests). This should be a statistical question, not a matter of guesswork or judgment. (In a technically competent world, test items themselves should get tested.) When even Klein cant speak to this question, it means there is a major problem in the state of New York. (Just a guess: A similar situation obtains in other states.)
Lets state the blindingly obvious: Year-to-year comparisons make no sense unless we know that this years tests are as difficult as those from last year. And yet, journalists endlessly make such comparisons without making any attempt to address this basic question. In his letter, even Klein wasnt willing to say whether these tests have gotten easier. In that moment, you see the Potemkin state of much of our current discussion.
Alas! We live inside a set of Truman showsan endless set of feigned discussions. Klein doesnt know if these tests have been dumbed down. Well guess what, folks? You dont know either!