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PITY THE CHILDREN! Pity the kids, if their interests depend on the work of the great New York Times: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JULY 6, 2006

CAN’T ANYONE HERE PLAY THIS GAME: So let’s see. Hillary Clinton is supporting Lieberman in the primary—but she’ll support Lamont if wins nomination. And Al Gore isn’t taking any position in the Connecticut primary.

It isn’t hard to explain those facts—unless you drive America’s discourse. On last night’s Hardball, guest host Norah O’Donnell introduced a short discussion—and became the first to bungle:

O’DONNELL (7/5/06): Al Gore won’t back him, his own running-mate! Hillary Clinton is now saying she won’t back him in the primaries! Hilary [Rosen], what’s going on in the Democratic Party? Do they want these anti-war challengers to beat Joe Lieberman?
Sorry, but that was just wrong. (For the record, O’Donnell was emoting wildly, in line with her recent stylistic reinventions.) In a rational world, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen would have quickly corrected her host. But this is the world of the Gang of 500—so Rosen found a different way to bungle these simple facts:
ROSEN (continuing directly): Well, I think both of them have said that they wish him well and hope that he, that he wins the primary and wins the election.
Good God! That was wrong too! Which part of Gore’s “I am not involved. I typically do not get involved in Democratic primaries” doesn’t this strategist understand?

If you couldn’t see it, you wouldn’t believe it. Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve been seeing it over the past eight-plus years.

PITY THE CHILDREN: Pity the children, if their interests depend on the analytical skills of our modern elites. On Sunday, the New York Times wrote an editorial about a new study of school testing programs. Here was the early grabber about this “startling new” report:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (7/2/06): A startling new study shows that many states have a longstanding tradition of setting basement-level educational standards and misleading the public about student performance. The patterns were set long before No Child Left Behind, and it will require more than just passing a law to change them.
According to the Times, the study—which was new and startling—showed that states are “setting basement-level educational standards” and are “misleading the public about student performance.” Of course, misleading the public is always wrong—and setting “basement-level standards” sounds like a bad thing too. But as the Times attempted to explain things further, their confusion began to show:
TIMES EDITORIAL (continuing directly): Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a research institute run jointly by Stanford and the University of California, showed that in many states students who performed brilliantly on state tests scored dismally on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is currently the strongest, most well-respected test in the country.

The study analyzed state-level testing practices from 1992 to 2005. It found that many states were dumbing down their tests or shifting the proficiency targets in math and reading, creating a fraudulent appearance of progress and making it impossible to tell how well students were actually performing.

Let’s try to make a long story short. In this editorial, the Times complains about two separate things. First, it says that states are “dumbing down their tests”—making their statewide tests too easy. Second, the Times complains that these states are somehow “making it impossible to tell how well students were actually performing”—that they’re “creating a fraudulent appearance of progress.” That second matter would be a real problem, to the extent that it was occurring. But uh-oh! It isn’t clear that state tests are too easy, despite the “evidence” the Times presents. And the Times doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of the ways in which these statewide tests actually can mislead the public. The editorial was a conceptual mess, about a serious topic.

First: Are statewide tests too easy? Plainly, the Times thinks the answer is yes—but its reasoning is quite weak. Why does the Times think these tests are too easy? In the following passage, we get the clear answer. The Times thinks the statewide tests are too easy because that federal test—the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP)—is somewhat harder to pass:

TIMES EDITORIAL (continuing directly): Not all states have tried to evade the truth. The tests in Massachusetts, for example, yield performance results that are reasonably close to the federal standard. Not so for states like Oklahoma, where the score gap between state and federal tests has averaged 48 points in reading and 60 points in math, according to the PACE report.
But there’s nothing new or “startling” about this. It’s true—in many states, fewer students “pass” the NAEP, as compared to the state tests. In some states, the difference in passing rate is substantial. But this matter has been widely discussed for years—and the fact that the NAEP is thereby “harder” doesn’t mean that the NAEP is “right.” (Some experts think the NAEP sets too high a standard for “proficiency.”) In fact, it’s always a matter of judgment where one sets the bar for “proficiency.” Has the state of Oklahoma set a reasonable bar—or does the NAEP have a more sensible standard? This is always a matter of judgment. No answer can really be right or wrong. The Times shows no real sign of knowing this.

So no, it simply isn’t clear that the states are setting the bar “too low.” And since it’s easy to explain the difference in state-versus-NAEP passing rates, it isn’t clear that a state “creat[es] a fraudulent appearance of progress” when it sets its standard somewhat lower. However, as the Times continues, it semi-discusses several ways states actually can mislead the public. Unfortunately, the editorial’s legitimate complaints are intermingled with other complaints—with complaints that don’t make good sense:

TIMES EDITORIAL (continuing directly): The states that want to mislead the government—and their own residents—use a variety of dodges, including setting passing scores low, using weak tests and switching tests from year to year to prevent unflattering comparisons over time. These strategies become transparent when the same students who perform so well on state tests do poorly on the more rigorous federal exam. Most alarming of all, the PACE study finds that the gap between student reading performance on the state and federal tests has actually grown wider over time—which suggests that claims of reading progress in many states are in fact phony.
No, it isn’t clear that states are “misleading their own residents” by using tests that are too easy (by “setting passing scores low”). But a state can start to mislead the public by “switching tests from year to year to prevent unflattering comparisons over time.” And forget about a state switching tests; even without switching test programs, a state can just make its tests easier from one year to the next, thereby driving up passing rates in a way which is misleading. Newspapers should “watchdog” this practice quite closely. But alas! They simply don’t.

Indeed, what did the deeply concerned Times do when this problem seemed to arise in New York? Of course! They completely ignored it! In the spring of 2005, passing rates in fourth grade reading jumped all over the state of New York. Experts suggested a possible explanation—that year’s test may have been somewhat easier than the test from 2004. But so what? The Times quickly penned an editorial crediting Mayor Bloomberg’s brilliant reforms with the rise in the city’s passing rate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/5/05). As noted, passing rates had jumped all over the state. But so what? In the city, it was due to the mayor! “Kudos for the Education Mayor,” read the editorial’s kissy-poo headline.

Pity the children—pity the children—when their interests rely on modern elites, like this weak elite at the Times.