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Daily Howler: Have test scores risen since 2002? The feel-good Post doesn't care
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MANY READERS LEFT BEHIND! Have test scores risen since 2002? The feel-good Post doesn’t care: // link // print // previous // next //

BAKER MAKES IT UP: Yesterday, we purchased Carl Bernstein’s new Clinton bio, and we’d have to say it makes people look bad. It makes the Post’s Peter Baker look bad, for example. And it makes Bernstein look bad.

How does the book make Baker look bad? On May 25, the excitable Postman wrote a thrilling front-page report about the book’s thrilling alleged contents. Strangely, here’s the way he described one of the book’s alleged revelations:
BAKER (5/25/07): The Clintons stayed together [after contemplating divorce], but out of "anger and hurt" she considered running for governor in 1990, when he presumably would step down to prepare his 1992 presidential campaign. The idea ended after consultant Dick Morris conducted two polls showing she had no independent identity with Arkansas voters and compared her to George Wallace's wife, who ran to succeed him in Alabama—an analogy that offended her.
Wow! Hillary Clinton almost ran for governor in 1990—out of “anger and hurt” at her husband! But that is plainly not what Bernstein’s book says, and the quoted phrase “anger and hurt” doesn’t seem to appear anywhere in the brief passages that deal with this matter. Where did Baker get the three-word quote—the quote that gave this passage its juice? We don’t have the slightest idea. He seems to have made the “quote” up. (At Tapped, Garance Franke-Ruta correctly reported what the book really says about this matter. Just click here.)

More significant is the part of the book which deals with that mysterious lawsuit, the one which “named” five women. As we’ve noted, Baker’s work was quite murky here. Bernstein’s book helps us guess why:
BAKER: In Bernstein's account, both Clintons went to great lengths to keep the lid on his infidelities. At the behest of Wright and Hillary Clinton, two partners with Hillary Clinton at the Rose Law Firm, Webster L. Hubbell and Vincent W. Foster Jr., were hired to represent women named in a lawsuit as having secret affairs with the governor. Hubbell and Foster questioned the women, then obtained signed statements that they never had sex with Bill Clinton. On one occasion, Bernstein reports, Hillary Clinton was present for the questioning.
According to Baker, Hillary Clinton “went to great lengths” in this episode to “keep the lid on [Bill Clinton’s] infidelities.” But Bernstein’s account is quite different—and just for the record, this does involve the crackpot lawsuit filed by Little Rock loser Larry Nichols. (We’ll discuss this matter in more detail tomorrow.) Were any real “infidelities” involved in this episode? Or were Nichols’ charges against these five women all bogus? Bernstein doesn’t exactly say, though he does say this: “Two of the five women were prominent friends of Hillary Clinton—both black—and almost no one familiar with the case believes they were anything more than friends.” Bernstein only names one of the five women included in the Nichols suit. And he makes almost no attempt to say if infidelities were actually involved.

In our view, this brief part of Bernstein’s book makes Baker look bad. But it makes Bernstein look bad too. Could anyone else spend so much time on a book—and come away with so little information? More tomorrow on this part of the book—and more on Chris Matthews’ vile conduct.

MANY READERS LEFT BEHIND: Simply put, we just aren’t a serious people. Consider the front-page, feel-good “news report” in today’s Post. Here’s the feel-good headline:
Scores Rise Since ‘No Child’ Signed
That central claim has been inflated in the paper’s on-line headline. “Test Scores Soar After No Child,” it now says at the Post’s web site.

But is it true? Have the nation’s test scores risen—or soared—since 2002, when the No Child Left Behind law went into effect? In this morning’s front-page report, Amit Paley describes a pleasing new study—and he quotes Ed Sec Margaret Spellings as she gushes about her program’s success:
PALEY (6/6/07): The nation's students have performed significantly better on state reading and math tests since President Bush signed his landmark education initiative into law five years ago, according to a major independent study released yesterday.

The study's authors warned that it is difficult to say whether or how much the No Child Left Behind law is driving the achievement gains. But Republican and Democratic supporters of the law said the findings indicate that it has been a success. Some said the findings bolster the odds that Congress will renew the controversial law this year.
This study confirms that No Child Left Behind has struck a chord of success with our nation's schools and students," U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a statement. "We know the law is working, so now is the time to reauthorize."

The report, which experts called the most comprehensive analysis of test data from all 50 states since 2002, concluded that the achievement gap between black and white students is shrinking in many states and that the pace of student gains increased after the law was enacted. The findings were particularly significant because of their source: the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, which in recent years has issued several reports that have found fault with aspects of the law's implementation.
It sounds great! The nation’s students have been performing better in reading and math, a new study says—although it isn’t clear how much of the gain has been due to NCLB.

But is it true? Are kids reading and ciphering better? You have to go to paragraph 23 (out of 26) to get a word of caution. And when you do, Paley’s account is so brief that few readers will really understand it:
PALEY: Some scholars criticized the report's methodology. Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, said it made little sense to draw conclusions when so few states have adequate data. He also said the researchers overstated small gains and did not adequately address states that he said have been dumbing down standards.
Huh! Fuller said that some states “have been dumbing down standards.” For an idea of what that cautionary statement might mean, consider a feel-good report that appeared in the New York Times just a few weeks ago.

“Eighth Graders Show Big Gain in Reading Test,” the cheerful headline said that day. David Herszenhorn started like this:
HERSZENHORN (5/23/07): The number of eighth graders reading at grade level or above in New York State climbed impressively this year for the first time since 1999, when the state adopted tougher educational standards and its modern testing system, according to scores released yesterday from the annual statewide English exam.

The eighth-grade results showed the most clear-cut advances in a year in which students in all tested grades, third through eighth, demonstrated better reading ability, including overall gains by students in New York City, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has made education a cornerstone of his administration.
Wow! Across New York state, kids did better in all grades tested (grades 3-8), but the advance at grade 8 was most impressive. Sadly, Herszenhorn never detailed the grade-by-grade statewide gains—but he did provide the grade-by-grade score gains for New York City. And sure enough—gains were much larger in grade 8 than in the lower grades:
HERSZENHORN: [S]cores in New York City improved in all grades except third grade, where scores were flat. Overall, across all grades, the proportion of New York City students meeting the state English [i.e., reading] standards rose 2.8 percentage points, to 56 percent from 53.2 percent last year.

And in eighth grade, the city showed the same solid gain that the state did, with the students meeting standards rising to 46.4 percent from 38.5 percent.
Huh! In eighth grade, the passing rate jumped 7.9 points. But in the other five grades which were tested, the score gains were much smaller. Indeed, across all six grades that were tested, the passing rate rose by only 2.8 points—even including the much larger gain recorded in grade 8. Some quick math yields the following estimate: On average, the passing rate rose by only 1.8 percentage points in grades 3-7—as compared to that 7.9 point jump in grade 8.

So one grade recorded a much larger gain. The other five grades achieved much smaller gains. (Third grade showed no gain at all.) An obvious possibility occurs at this point—perhaps there was something “wrong” with that eighth grade test. If the state had accidentally made that test “too easy”—if it wasn’t really comparable to the previous year’s eighth grade test—then that could help explain the unusual jump at that one grade level. And note: Similar problems have occurred in recent years with test score jumps in New York state tests, and these problems have been widely discussed. If we actually care what the facts are here, we’d surely consider this possibility as we look at this year’s scores. (Just for kicks, the 2006 and 2007 tests can be accessed here.)

But Herszenhorn didn’t question the eighth grade jump. Instead, he quoted an interested party—the state education commissioner—giving a peculiar (but pleasing) “explanation” for the jump in the eighth grade passing rate. No, this “explanation” doesn’t really make sense. But it does make us feel good all over:
HERZSENHORN: In explaining the improvements in eighth grade, [Richard] Mills said he believed that educators were alerted by last year's test results, the first year in which the state tested Grades 3 through 8 rather than just Grades 4 and 8.

Those results had shown a precipitous drop in achievement from fifth to sixth grade and steady decline through eighth grade.

Mr. Mills said he believed those scores had shocked many schools into providing extra help for struggling students.

''Last year was a dramatic moment,'' Mr. Mills said in an interview. ''I think that was a very sobering picture for people.

He added, ''Of course it takes a while for people to change their practice, just like it takes time for people to change their habits when they get a report from their physician about their cholesterol level. But some people do change radically.”
According to Commissioner Mills, last year’s lousy scores really woke schools up. But only at the eighth grade level!

No, that really doesn’t make sense. But the Times included it in its story—and it included no other thoughts about the jump in the eighth grade score. That eighth grade jump went into the headline. Times readers got a chance to feel good.

Were New York’s eighth graders really that much better this year? We don’t have the slightest idea. But in the past decade or so, there has been a problem with state-run tests, a problem observed all over the country. This problem has been widely discussed; most likely, it’s what Fuller meant when he told Paley (in today’s Post) that many states have “dumbed down standards” in the past five years, producing a misleading gain in test scores. Here’s the problem: All over the country, states have shown improved passing rates on state-run tests—score gains which haven’t been matched on other tests, like the federally-run NAEP. Repeatedly, experts have suggested that these hard-to-replicate statewide score gains have reflected easier tests, not a real gain in student achievement. Presumably, that’s the problem Professor Fuller cites in this morning’s Post feel-gooder. But Fuller isn’t quoted until paragraph 23—and even then, his quoted statement is so brief that it’s hard to tell what he’s talking about. In this morning’s Post, the nation’s test scores have risen (or “soared”). The Post makes little attempt to quote experts who suggest that these gains may be bogus.

For years, the Post has been deeply irresponsible in the way it handles these feel-good stories. Today, it has been irresponsible again. The paper makes almost no attempt to explain the objections to this new study—and its headlines tell the world about the great gains that are being achieved nationwide. Ironically, this morning’s report in the New York Times does a vastly better job noting the potential problems with this latest feel-good study. But alas! The Times report is on page C15. The Post displays its contempt for the interests of poor children right out on page one.

Have American school kids been reading better in the years since 2002? That’s a very important question. But we aren’t a very serious people, as the Post has proven again with a feel-good, know-nothing report. Go ahead! Read your Post! It will let you feel good all over!