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THE PANTS SEEN ROUND THE WORLD! A truly gruesome act of bad faith has passed with little comment: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, AUGUST 2, 2010

The Empire State’s new test scores: We’ve followed public school testing issues for almost forty years. For that reason, a news report in last Thursday’s New York Times was quite hard to take. It was maddening, almost infuriating. It took us three tries to finish.

In her report, Jennifer Medina described a very strange state of affairs. Results from this year’s statewide tests in reading and math (grades 3-8) have been released by the state of New York. And statewide passing rates have plunged, as we noted last Friday:

MEDINA (7/29/10): The falloff in passing rates occurred statewide. This year, 61 percent of state students were deemed passing, or at grade level, in math, compared with 86 percent last year. Students also performed dismally on the English tests, with 53 percent passing, down from 77 percent.

Say what? Last year, New Yorkers cheered as 86 percent of the state’s kids “were deemed passing, or at grade level, in math.” This year, only 61 percent were so deemed, with a similar plunge in passing rates on the state’s reading tests. (New York State calls its reading tests “English.”)

For the record, no one thinks that New York State’s kids are actually doing worse this year. What actually happened? New York State simply changed its tests, and many fewer kids were able to pass! In this remarkable passage, Medina describes part of what occurred:

MEDINA: New York State said the tests had become too easy, with some questions varying little from year to year, making it simple for teachers to prepare students because each test is made publicly available after it is given. So this year, the state made the questions less predictable and raised the number of correct answers needed to pass the tests, which are given to every students from the third through the eighth grades.

Last year, for example, a fourth grader had to get 37 out of 70 possible points on the math test to reach Level 3 (our of 4), or grade level. This year, a fourth grader needed to earn 51 out of 70 points to reach that level.

Good grief! Last year, a fourth grader needed 37 points (out of 70) to pass the state’s math test. This year, his younger sister needed 51 points! Truly, that’s a remarkable fact—and yet, as written, Medina’s passage doesn’t make much sense. If New York’s tests “had become too easy” because the test questions were too “predictable,” why did the state raise its requisite passing scores? Why didn’t they simply rewrite the test items? Why didn’t they leave it at that?

Medina never attempts to solve this riddle at any point in her lengthy report. Nor did she tackle this riddle on July 20, when she first reported this state of affairs. (“New York State education officials acknowledged on Monday that their standardized exams had become easier to pass over the last four years and said they would recalibrate the scoring for tests taken this spring, which is almost certain to mean thousands more students will fail.”) But in truth, the problems in last Thursday’s report began with this semi-comical passage, which directly followed Medina’s description of the large drop in passing rates:

MEDINA: The scoring adjustment could raise questions about the precision of educational testing, even as policy makers across the country, including President Obama, are relying on tests to determine teachers’ pay and whether a school should be shut. In New York City, scores on state tests have been used to assign grades A through F to each school, as well as to determine principal and teacher bonuses.

And the results could cast doubts on the city’s improvements over the past several years; both [Mayor Bloomberg] and the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, have used increases in state test scores as evidence that schools have improved.

Are you kidding? The “scoring adjustment” could raise questions about New York State’s testing? The drop in passing rates could raise doubts about New York City’s improvement? Of course these events will raise such questions, except perhaps at the New York Times, which kissed the hem of Bloomberg’s wealth and power as it clowned its way through the test score gains of the past decade. It was always obvious that there were problems with some of the claims Mayor Bloomberg was making; it has long been plain that there might be problems with the score gains recorded all over the state. But under Gail Collins (Duchess of Middle Inania), the New York Times editorial board kept kissing the hem of Bloomberg’s garments. This practice continued in the reign of the current editorial board chairman, Andrew Rosenthal, former dauphin of the province of Times-Rosenthalia.

The “scoring adjustment” could raise questions about New York State’s testing? In her very next paragraph, Medina quoted Thomas Petrilli, an educational expert, saying this: “The state test is completely unreliable.” (On July 20, she quoted David Steiner, the current education commissioner, saying this about recent scoring patterns: “The only possible conclusion is that something strange has happened to our test.”) Obviously, the “scoring adjustment” raises the gravest sorts of questions about the state’s testing procedures, questions Medina shows no sign of wanting to answer or ask.

How inept is Medina, writing for our nation’s “smartest” newspaper? Just look back to the earlier passage where she says that a score of 51on the fourth grade math test means that a student has reached “Level 3 (out of 4), or grade level” (our emphasis). Is that an actual claim by the state? Does New York State explicitly claim that a student getting 51 points has shown that she is working on traditional fourth-grade level in math? Most important: If the state is making that claim, is there any reason to believe it? Last year, the same state said that a score of 37 showed a child was “on grade level.” If the state was so crazily wrong last year, why believe the state now?

In other words: How did the state of New York come up with its new magic numbers? Did they pull these numbers out of a hat, or was there some coherent process by which the new passing scores were selected? And by the way: If last year’s passing scores were crazily low, is it possible that the new passing scores could even be artificially high? That kids who really are “on grade level” can’t make the grade on this test?

These statewide tests are very important. Such significant tests should be carefully developed, by valid psychometric procedures, not pulled out of somebody’s keister. But the New York Times has always been hopelessly dumb when it comes to such basic topics (as has the Washington Post). Trust us: Medina will never ask the relevant questions—and her editors will never make her. The Empire State has been wearing few clothes—and its famous leading newspaper has never been willing to notice.

Please note: We aren’t trying to prejudge the work of the current state regime. Steiner has been on the job for roughly a year; in our view, he deserves credit for addressing this long-standing problem. As best we can tell, Merryl Tisch, current head of the State Board of Regents, deserves such credit too. But are changes being made in a competent way? As usual, the New York Times seems to be working on a kindergarten level as it examines this topic. Medina’s treatment of this remarkable story has been pure D-minus work.

Alas! The “meta” story in this mess involves our societal IQ. If the Times really is our “smartest” newspaper, that score can barely be found. And of course, we liberals never discuss such topics. More on that on Friday.

A gruesome letter: On Saturday, the Times published five letters about this July 24 editorial. Apparently texting it in from the Hamptons, the editors had assured the world that “the problem in New York [State testing] seems to have involved no deliberate deception.” Several letter-writers joined Medina (and the editors) in jumbling up the basic issues involved in the current mess. But one letter came from Jacqueline Ancess, a honcho at Teachers College, Columbia University. And uh-oh! Ancess seems to know what she’s talking about! Could the factual claims in this passage possibly be accurate?

ANCESS (7/30/10): Among the major problems is that the state’s Education Department lowered the number of correct answers required for a passing grade, so students could pass some tests by getting only 35 percent of the questions correct—or in some cases by simply filling in the same column of bubbles for all the questions without even reading the test! Lowering the cutoff for a passing grade has been a long-term, deliberate decision on the part of Education Department officials and the Board of Regents leadership. The tests aren’t dishonest; the test creators and test policy makers are.

The Education Department, the Regents leadership and the test companies they contract with need to be held accountable for valid assessments, and your editorial writers need to be held accountable for printing all of the facts, not just the ones that will support a predetermined point of view.

Question: If Ancess’ factual statements are accurate, why are we reading them in a letter, not in a news report?

Silly Ancess! She’ll never get party invites from the mayor, making outrageous statements like these! Why, she’s saying the Empire State had no clothes! Who could think something like that?

THE PANTS SEEN ROUND THE WORLD (permalink): Josh Marshall asked a very good question this weekend—but you know the way we liberals are! He showed little sign of understanding that he’d asked it a little too late.

This was Josh’s question: Is Charlie Rangel facing a “trial” in the House ethics committee? How about Maxine Waters? The term has been widely used by our leading news organizations—but has it been used in this type of case in the past? Josh says he “poked around in Nexis” a bit, sounding like a real first-timer when it comes to this thing called “research:”

MARSHALL (8/1/10): Now, there are a lot of things about Congress I'm no expert on, to put it mildly. But I'd always thought these disciplinary hearings were called “hearings”, not “trials”, which is obviously a more charged word and doesn't seem to really describe what's involved.

So tonight I decided to do some poking around to see if this word had been used in earlier cases. And as near as I can tell, it hasn't. I mainly poked around in Nexis (along with some follow-up Google searches). It's not only difficult to prove a negative but it's also hard to know whether you're using just the right search words to bring up all the right examples. But the cases I'm familiar with are the trials/hearings for James Traficant (2002), Newt Gingrich (1997) and Jim Wright (1989). And I've been able to find few if any cases where reports at the time referred to these as “trials” as opposed to “hearings.”

We liberals! That’s the way our smartest players conduct their research.

Actually, it isn’t that hard to “prove a negative” when it comes to a matter like this. After reading Josh’s piece, we briefly researched the mother of all modern ethics hearings, the 1990-91 Senate hearings involving the so-called “Keating Five.” In real time, these hearings were extremely high-profile because they involved five sitting senators, a very large number. And these hearings stayed in the news for years after that, because one of the solons was the world’s most honest man, the future saint, Saint John McCain.

Searching on “Keating AND trial,” it becomes clear that these hearings were almost never described as a trial in the New York Times or the Washington Post. (Except in the rare moment, as when columnist Mary McGrory wrote this: “But this is not a trial, as everyone is frequently reminded by the chairman, Sen. Howell Heflin.”) Here’s how the Post headlined the hearings at five early junctures:

November 15, 1990: ‘Keating Five’ Hearings to Open Today; Senators’ Actions in S&L Case Probed
November 29, 1990: Gray’s Testimony Attacked at Hearing; Former Thrift Regulator Stands By Account of ‘Keating 5’ Pressure
December 7, 1990: ‘Keating Five’ Hearings Extended; Senate Ethics Panel Seeks Testimony from Key Aide in S&L Case
December 9, 1990: ‘Keating 5’ Hearings Fail to Yield Consensus; Conflicting Stories and Disputed Standards Mark Senate Ethics Committee Proceedings
December 16, 1990: After Saturday Session, Ethics Panel Recesses Hearing on 5 Senators Until Early January

Josh’s impression seems to be right. In the past, such hearings have rarely been described as “trials.” But this morning, the fraught term appears, three separate times, above the fold on the Times’ front page. Beyond that, the term “trial” has routinely been used in the Post’s headlines concerning Rangel.

Yes, this seems to be new language, language which does tip the scales a tad. (Has anyone seen Frank Luntz around?) But you know easy how we liberals can be! As Josh notes, his own site, like the rest of the insider world, has been using that new, exciting term in its own coverage of Rangel! Josh tosses this off in a rueful aside, without displaying any real sense that his own site has perhaps been tooken by some Luntzian language machine.

(On the other hand, this new usage may simply reflect the press corps’ drift toward more exciting, tabloidized coverage. If you want to know what the drift toward tabloid looks like, go check Josh’s site.)

Good God, we liberals are easy! This brings us to the recent news about Al Gore and that pair of stained pants—the pants seen round the world.

Last Friday, Gore was “cleared of allegations he groped and assaulted a masseuse in a luxury Portland hotel room in 2006,” the AP reported. On Saturday, the Washington Post ran this remarkably uninformative, brief report in its hard-copy editions. On-line, the Post linked to the AP report, which continued its nugget sentence with this imitation of reality: “…closing a case that could have tarnished the Nobel Prize winner’s reputation.”

A case that could have tarnished Gore’s reputation? Plainly, the case has tarnished his reputation; it has also changed the world’s discussion of climate change. To a certain extent, these unfortunate events have occurred because of that pair of black pants—the pants seen round the world.

To see the pair of pants in question, just click here. You will soon be gazing upon a case of astounding bad faith.

Alas! The link takes you to the cover of a recent National Enquirer. On the cover, Gore’s accuser was shown holding up a pair of black pants—the pants the accuser said she wore on the night of the alleged incident. “HER STAINED PANTS,” a tabloid bubble screams, pointing to the troubling trousers. Supermarket shoppers saw this photo on the cover of the Enquirer. The world’s discussion of climate change will be forever altered. (How much? There’s no way to say.)

What made that cover photo a display of astounding bad faith? When the Portland DA announced that he would not proceed further with the allegation against Gore, he released a public document detailing “deficiencies” with the accuser’s case. Among them: The accuser seems to have been paid by the Enquirer. (The Enquirer itself has said that she asked for a million dollars.) The accuser failed a lie detector test. The accuser has repeatedly failed to provide various types of records. And this:

PORTLAND DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Forensic testing of pants retained by Ms. Hagerty as possible evidence are negative for the presence of seminal fluid.

But the Portland DA was being kind to Hagerty in that passage. Last month, the Portland Tribune published this long account of its own attempt to research the case back in 2008. Here’s part of the Tribune’s account of their interview with the accuser:

MURPHY (7/15/10): [A]s the Portland masseuse recited what she said happened that night with Al Gore in a Portland hotel suite, a decade after Monica Lewinsky, “family man” Gore seemingly had a different issue: The licensed masseuse was alleging that Gore forced her to have a nonconsensual physical encounter with him in October 2006…

And, she said, she kept the black pants she was wearing that night—pants that she claimed contained a stain that may have occurred while Gore was standing against her in his bath robe.

But as quickly as that stain seemed like it could become damning and world-changing evidence against Gore, it faded away. After mentioning the stain, the massage therapist acknowledged she had it tested for semen, and the results came back negative.

According to the Tribune, the pants had already tested negative, as of 2008! But so what? Two years later, the million dollar-seeking accuser plaintively posed with the pair of pants, in a move transparently intended to evoke “that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” The Enquirer engaged in this disgraceful conduct, throwing the photo onto its cover, where Molly Hagerty’s thrilling “STAINED PANTS” became the pants seen round the world.

Unless there’s something bad wrong with these facts, this represents truly disgraceful conduct—by the accuser, and by the Enquirer. But have you seen a single liberal who has made this case? We liberals! In the Clinton-Gore era, we made our feckless natures clear—you could say any damn thing you pleased about our leaders, and we agreed not to get mad! By the end of that era, fiery liberals by the barrel were vouching for the truthfulness of Gennifer Flowers, whose initial complaints about Candidate Clinton were full of groaning factual errors, whose overall story never made sense. (For our money, Frank Rich was the most clownish of those who vouched for Flowers. Flowers not only got rich through her accusations, she even got Frank in the process.)

Perhaps you can recall the history, a history we liberals never discuss: Clinton was trashed all through the era, often in ludicrous ways, while fiery liberals slept in the woods. Then, the press corps went after Gore—and Bush ended up in the White House.

Many liberals played active roles in that two-year war against Gore. Others sat back and allowed it. Just last week, E. J. Dionne grandly announced that Al Gore never said he invented the Internet! Ass-kissing liberals like Little Lord Benen cheered him for his conduct—and forgot to note that Dionne never said such a thing in real time, when it might have rescued the world.

When it mattered, Dionne ran off and hid in the woods. Lord Benen followed suit last week.

Can we talk? We liberals are often a pitiful breed—dumb, dishonest, corrupt, ass-kissing. Here at THE HOWLER, we’ll examine our tribe in the next four days. We liberals! We love to praise our own brilliance and goodness. The truth is a whole nother thing.

Go ahead! Gaze again on that cover photo! Those are the pants seen round the world—the pants which have changed the world’s climate discussion. We liberals have meekly let this go, just as we meekly let everything go in The Decade That Was.

By the way: On Sunday, Salon posted this AP report, a news report built around the claim that Maxine Waters “could face an ethics trial this fall.” And uh-oh! “Ethics Trail [sic] may derail Maxine Waters,” Salon’s own headline cried. Salon was trying to call it a trial, but it transposed its letters.

We liberals are so smart, so pure! We’ll examine this proposition all week. It’s much as Pogo once opined: When it comes to progressive interests, the enemy can often be us.