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Daily Howler: Mayor Daley ran the rubes--and the Tribune let him
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CLAPPING AND CHEERING! Mayor Daley ran the rubes—and the Tribune let him: // link // print // previous // next //

CLAPPING AND CHEERING: Pity the children! In last Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune, Diane Rado described the scene as Chicago officials alleged improvement in the city’s public school test scores:
RADO (7/12/06): "We're showing the nation that if you stay the course...that our students can and will do better," the mayor [Richard Daley] said.

The results were announced during a boisterous news conference, with the audience clapping and cheering as Daley and other officials talked about the good news about the crucial state tests.

Unfortunately, the change in test scores was totally meaningless, at least as far as one can tell from reading Rado’s report. Yes, passing rates on the state-mandated, annual tests were higher. “A record 62.5 percent of 3rd through 8th graders passed the exams, administered last spring, a jump from 47.3 percent the year before, according to preliminary results of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test,” Rado reported. But uh-oh! The scribe reported something else—the state tests were substantially different this year. Here’s her capsule account:
RADO: [C]ity and school officials acknowledged that the gains are attributed in part to the Illinois State Board of Education making it easier to pass the 8th-grade math exam by lowering the passing score. The state also revamped the test content and gave students more time to finish.
More detail followed. According to Rado, the content of the tests had been substantially changed, and students had been given more time to complete them. To state the obvious, this makes it hard to know how to compare this year’s scores to those from last year. Unless, of course, you believe Becky McCabe, the head of Illinois state testing. McCabe was paraphrased saying this about the jump in the scores:
RADO: Becky McCabe, head of state testing for the Illinois State Board of Education, said she believes comparisons can still be made between this year's results and prior tests, because the exams last spring and in prior years had the same level of difficulty. She also said she does not believe many students took the extra time, based on anecdotal information.

McCabe said she heard from educators that students were more engaged and prepared this year and liked the new color format of the testing booklet, all of which could lead to higher passing rates.

Good God! Let’s start with that “new color format.” To the extent that pleasing new colors affect the scores, then the change in scores does not reflect an actual change in reading skill. It’s hard to know why McCabe would want to mention this problematic point. And McCabe’s statement about the effects of the extra time are “based on anecdotal information.” One cringes when a state testing director makes such cringe-worthy comments. But McCabe did say one thing which sounded professional; she apparently said that this year’s tests have “the same level of difficulty” as those from last year. That claim, of course, could well be true. But uh-oh! A problem arises. There’s no sign Rado tried to find out.

Are this year’s tests as hard as last year’s? McCabe seems to have said that they are—and as state director, she should have detailed technical manuals which describe the ways the state constructed this year’s new tests. If the state wanted the new tests to “equate” to the old ones, there were ways to make that happen as the new tests were being developed. But Rado seems to have made no attempt to examine this one crucial claim by McCabe; there is no sign that she has tried to review the state’s technical work. Instead, she takes an easier course. She simply records McCabe’s key claim—then describes all the cheering and yelling.

(At the Chicago Sun-Times, Rosalind Rossi said that some experts warned that the jump in scores “could be illusory.” But is the jump in scores illusory? There was no sign that she had attempted to examine the technical work, either.)

Does that ballyhooed change in passing rates mean anything at all? At this point, there’s simply no way to know. But so what? “The results were announced during a boisterous news conference, with the audience clapping and cheering.” Such clownish scenes have occurred for decades as men like Daley run the rubes—and as big newspapers play civic booster, refusing to check the work of cheerleading authorities.

“City schools hail test scores news,” the headline on the Rado piece said.

NOTE ON PASSING SCORE: The passing score was lowered on only one test—eighth grade math. This produced a large jump in the passing rate for that test. But this played a minor role in the overall rise in passing rates.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Last spring, it was Gotham’s great mayor who was leading the cheers—and the New York Times which agreed to play booster. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/6/05. The basic lesson is clear in such sessions: Urban school children don’t matter.