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DIGBY’S RULES ARE IN ORDER! Sad to say, Digby is right about those Clinton Rules: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 21, 2006

DIGBY’S RULES ARE IN ORDER: Unfortunately, Digby is right every step of the way in this unfortunate post. Like Digby, we’re “against delving into people's private lives” too; we think it’s a childish and ludicrous way to select an American president. But Digby asks the seminal question of the past fifteen years: Will the Clinton Rules apply to Hillary Clinton in 2008—and to no one else? We’d guess that the answer is fairly clear—and liberals, centrists, progressives, Dems simply can’t accept this again.

In this post, Digby refers to sexual snooping when she discusses the “Clinton Rules.” But make no mistake. The “Clinton Rules” were reinvented for Gore in Campaign 2000, and applied to him in a remarkable way—while liberals and Democrats stared into air, unwilling to challenge the process. Unable to criticize Gore’s private life, the press corps invented a string of tales about Gore’s “problem with the truth,” and they repeated their tales for two solid years. Meekly, Democrats accepted that new set of “rules.” As a result, George Bush found his way to the White House—and Cheney found his way to Iraq.

What explains these “Clinton Rules”—rules which have proven to be strangely malleable? So far, major journalists have barely been asked. But Democrats, liberals, centrists and progressive can no longer stare into space while the “press corps” invents and reinvents its strange rules. We’ll only challenge Digby’s analysis in one way; in large part, the “rules” for Campaign 08 have already been written, and they involve a magnificent saint—a sun-godly solon named Saint John McCain. From March 1999 through November 2000, the public was told that Gore was a demon. This time around, the script will be flipped; American voters will be told that the Republican candidate is a great saint. Digby says this about McCain: “If he can get past James Dobson he's going to be tough to beat, I think.” We think that vastly understates the situation. The “McCain Rules” have long since been set into stone. And yes, the chances are good that these well-scripted rules will make him impossible to beat. (If McCain can get past Dobson—and yes, we’ll guess that he can.)

Unfortunately, Digby is right; Democrats can’t afford to be saps any more. (As we were, so disgracefully, during Campaign 2000.) We can’t let the press corps nose around in a major Dem’s life unless they nose around in all others. But do Dems understand the powerful script that’s already set for Campaign 08? When Digby adds the words “I think,” we find ourselves getting nervous. But then again, in our view, it may be too late to matter.

Final point: To this day, citizens have never been able to read the full story of what occurred during Campaign 2000. We think citizens deserve to read that remarkable story—in full. We’ll post our proposal on Friday.

DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL: For our money, the most interesting article in this morning’s papers is this Post report by education writer Nick Anderson. The state of Maryland has just released test scores from this year’s statewide testing (the current program is called the MSA). Anderson seems to describe substantial progress since 2003, when the MSA was introduced:

ANDERSON (6/21/06): In third grade, 78 percent of students tested this year in reading and 79 percent tested in math reached at least proficiency—the state's term for grade-level performance. Three years ago, 58 percent of third-graders met that standard in reading; 65 percent in math.

But the percentage-point increase in both subjects is tailing off. A 13-point jump in third-grade reading in 2004 was followed by gains of five points in 2005 and three points this year. Third-grade math gains were seven points in 2004, five points in 2005 and two points this year.

Wow! In 2003, only 58 percent of third-graders tested on grade level in reading; this year, the figure is 78 percent. But the progress is “tailing off,” Anderson notes. Here is his (weak) explanation:
ANDERSON: Experts say scores tend to rise across the board in the first years of a new statewide test, as students and teachers learn the exam format. "Once those things are in place, now the growth is going to be more modest," said Duane Arbogast, a testing specialist with Anne Arundel County schools. "You're not going to see huge drops, either. Nothing is going to be very large.”
Why did the passing rate jump so much (thirteen points) in 2004—the second year this set of tests was given? According to Anderson’s experts, “scores tend to rise” in the early years of a test program “as students and teachers learn the exam format.” According to this explanation, the passing rate jumped from 58 percent in 2003 to 71 percent in 2004 because third-grade students and teachers were more familiar with the MSA’s “format.”

In a rational world, that ought be troubling. Should a test’s “format” be so complex that it can produce such significant changes in outcomes? Let’s be frank: To the extent that familiarity with a test’s “format” can produce such score changes, the test is a lousy test. According to Anderson, that jump in scores in 2004 occurred because the students were more familiar with the MSA’s format. But how had students been made more familiar? Had this process of familiarization been uniform statewide? (If not, we can’t compare scores from one school to the next.) And most important: Why should we pay any attention to scores from 2003 if they merely reflect confusion about format? Here’s the problem: To the extent that score changes reflect increased familiarity with format, they don’t reflect improvement in reading! Anderson’s explanation ought to be troubling. But Anderson doesn’t seem to know.

Let’s fill in some background here. As every testing “expert” must know, scores sometimes used to jump in the second year of a test for a very unfortunate reason. With the norm-references standardized tests which used to predominate (The Iowa Tests, for example), test items would remain unchanged for at least seven years. From year to year, third-grade students were taking the exact same test. So uh-oh! By the second year of a testing program, teachers knew the exact questions which it included, and they would sometimes prepare their students in ways which were baldly inappropriate. That is why test scores often jumped in the second year of those testing programs. Today, though, tests are often different. With most state-devised tests (like the MSA), test items change from year to year. Teachers can’t prepare students (inappropriately) for particular items; they don’t know what the items will be. (We’re told by the Maryland Department of Ed that some MSA test items are the same year to year, and that some items are different.)

But there’s a downside to these new testing programs, in which test items change from year to year. On the one hand, teachers can no longer blatantly cheat, preparing students for specific test questions. But uh-oh! If specific test items change every year, then the test can get easier from one year to the next. (Or harder.) Are Maryland third-graders reading better? Or has the test just gotten easier? Absent careful technical study, there’s absolutely no way to know. But Anderson doesn’t even seem aware of this obvious question. (We’re told by the Maryland Department of Ed that the tests are “equated” from year to year—designed to be equally difficult.)

Have the MSA tests gotten easier? We don’t have the slightest idea—but Anderson doesn’t seem to have asked. We’d love to know why those test scores have jumped. Anderson makes a weak attempt to speak to this crucial question.

WHAT EXPLAINS IT: Here’s a chart of Maryland third-grade reading results. Are Maryland’s third-grade kids reading better? Has the test gotten somewhat easier? Are students just more familiar with “format?” Absent careful technical study, there’s no way to know—none at all.

BY THE WAY: What has happened to our plan for an urban ed site? With the school year now concluded, we’ll answer that question next week.

THIS TIME, KLEIN GETS IT RIGHT: Kill the pig! As liberal bloggers rewrite The Lord of the Flies, they’ve cast Joe Klein in a starring role. By the rules, everything he says just has to be wrong, even when something he says is right (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/20/06). That in mind, we were intrigued by Klein’s recent e-mail to Greg Sargent, whose “Horse’s Mouth” is a must-read site. We’ll highlight one part of the e-mail which we think Dems and libs should consider:

KLEIN E-MAIL (6/20/06): I believe Bush's week was politically efficacious....but, as always, it was substantively empty to the point of malfeasance. I believe that polling regarding people's attitude toward the war is notoriously unreliable—the feelings on this issue are just too complex to be quantified and, as we saw in 2004, very easily manipulated and exploited. I think it's entirely possible that Republicans will succeed in doing that yet again. I believe the Democrats are in a tough spot politically because of their long-term antiwar bias—which led them to overcompensate in 2002 and vote for the war—and their short-term inability to come up with an alternative scenario for the larger war against Al Qaeda. I don't believe simply calling for a phased withdrawal is enough. I want details. Haven't heard any (and I promise I'll ask Murtha et al for some as this goes forward—Jim Webb seems to think there's a military way to do it, and I owe him a conversation about that). But I also don't believe that simply "staying the course" is enough—for the exact same reason.
It’s odd that Klein hasn’t had those conversations with Murtha and Webb about “details.” But the point we’ve highlighted is important. Many liberals are pleased to see the negative polling on the war. But uh-oh! Polls can only record what voters say when they’re asked a particular question. A poll can’t say how voters will react when exposed to future argument—or to chauvinistic appeals. We agree with Klein; on an emotional issue like war, polling results should be taken with caution. When the “commander-in-chief” starts to say “cut and run,” many voters may cut-and-run from their stated opposition to the war. As Klein says, it’s easy to “manipulate and exploit” voters’ feelings on emotional issues of war. And no, Klein wasn’t trying to compliment Bush when he made that statement.

By the way, let’s say it again: Greg Sargent’s site is a daily must-read. Over the past decade, young liberal writers have generally refused to discuss the mainstream press corps’ assaults against major Democrats. In 1999 and 2000, their silence helped send George Bush to the White House—and they’ve ducked the remarkable story of that campaign from that day to this. Many career writers still won’t go there—but some, like Sargent, seem much more willing. Add Sargent’s name to Boehlert, Daou, Foser (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/19/06)—and let’s hope that other young career writers decide to speak more freely about these matters. Voters deserve to hear the truth about the way their politics works, even if it hurts young dandies’ careers. Regarding major aspects of the Clinton/Gore/McCain Rules, career libs have been weak, corrupt—silent.