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THE GENERAL’S DATA! As always, a gang of pundits knew who we should trust: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2007

RELEVANT DATA LEFT BEHIND: We’d like to compliment the Washington Post for the attention it pays to educational issues, like this week’s impending debate on renewal of No Child Left Behind. This morning, the Post devotes a lot of space on its op-ed and editorial pages to this impending debate, and it offers this front-page report on a related subject. But simply put, the work isn’t good, in familiar, time-honored ways.

Let’s consider that front-page report. In it, Daniel de Vise examines SAT scores from DC-area high schools, scores in which black kids who took the SAT continue to score substantially lower than their white peers who were tested.

For the record, de Vise’s data suggest that plenty of black kids in the Washington area are scoring well on the SAT. For example, black kids at (affluent) high schools like Walt Whitman (Bethesda) and Langley (McLean) are outscoring or matching white kids at more middle-class schools like Wheaton or Edison (Alexandria); presumably, there are plenty of black kids in these schools who are achieving good scores. (In all cases, we’re talking about kids who chose to take the SATs, not the entire student bodies.) But what explains the “lingering racial SAT gap” that continues at the eight high schools de Vise discusses? As is often the case in these matters, de Vise offers an impenetrable, seemingly bowdlerized discussion—one that sometimes seems determined to avoid considering obvious relevant data.

Why did tested black kids score below tested white kids at all eight of these high schools? Here is one of the maddening passages which define this piece:
DE VISE (9/10/07): Teachers, parents and scholars cite several factors in the persistent gap separating blacks' and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics' scores from whites' and Asians' scores on the SAT.

Black students tend to arrive at elite high schools inadequately prepared for the SAT, according to directors of the College Board, which administers the test. And even in affluent communities, they don't take as rigorous courses as their white and Asian classmates; the wealthiest black students are no more likely to take calculus in high school, for example, than the poorest whites and Asians, a deficiency that points to a historic lack of access to the classes.
Important! The wealthiest black kids don’t take calculus as often as their white peers, de Vise says. But does anyone know what de Vise means when he calls this “a deficiency that points to a historic lack of access to the classes?” We don’t have the slightest idea—but we’re suddenly diverted by this vague evocation of historical racial deprivation. Meanwhile, the first sentence we’ve highlighted strikes us as potentially important—but it is worded so vaguely that its relevance might be missed. “Black students tend to arrive at elite high schools inadequately prepared for the SAT?” We have no idea what that means, either; as far as we know, eighth-grade students don’t take SAT prep classes, for instance. But it may mean this, and this would be important: It may mean that black students in these high schools were behind their white peers in academic functioning on the day they all entered high school. You can’t expect such a gap to disappear just because everyone takes the same classes in high school, the solution that seems to be suggested at various points in this report. The obvious question would be this: Why were the tested black kids behind the tested white kids in eighth grade—and, perhaps, in sixth grade, or fourth? No, answering that question wouldn’t be easy. But at least, the real problem would be clear.

But throughout this report, de Vise seems determined to cloud the important issues he raises. The most basic questions go unasked, as in this passage:
DE VISE (continuing directly): "There are differences in preparation that will take years to erase," said Wayne Camara, the College Board's vice president for research.

In Montgomery [County], for instance, 65 percent of all white 2006 graduates took at least one Advanced Placement exam. The corresponding figure for blacks: 27 percent.

Recruiting black and Hispanic students into advanced math classes has been a top goal of Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast since he took the job in 1999. From 2001 to 2006, the share of the county's black students taking accelerated math in the sixth grade rose from 15 percent to 22 percent. Black student SAT scores should rise, Weast said, when those students reach high school.

"It's all about taking the right courses," Weast said. "And that's been particularly important for the Hispanics and the African Americans, because historically, they have not been in the right courses."
That first comparison (65 v. 27 percent) is interesting, but irrelevant; it compares all students who graduated from Montgomery County high schools, not the kids who took the SAT. But the highlighted data are simply maddening. We’re told that 22 percent of black sixth graders took advanced math in recent years, but we aren’t told how many white sixth graders did. Again, these data aren’t entirely relevant; more specifically, we’d want to know how many of the tested high school students (white and black) took advanced math when they were in sixth grade. (Nor is Weast’s deduction about future black test scores obvious, but let’s not even bother with that.) In our view, de Vise’s piece almost seems designed to avoid presenting the relevant data. And as always, we’re left with an easy suggestion: If black students will just start taking “the right courses,” their scores will go up too.

No, that won’t necessarily happen (more below). But it’s an easy conclusion.

What would we want to know about the groups of kids who took the SAT at those high schools? We’d want to see their scores on standardized tests when they were in the fourth, or sixth, or eighth grades. It may just be that those groups of black kids—many of whom did quite well on the SAT—were, on average, behind their white peers all the way back to grade school. If so, those unequal SAT scores are hardly surprising. And the real question—which is quite simple—has once again been joined.

Note: Late in the piece, someone says something that even makes sense—and that seems to be spoken in English:
DE VISE: "Simply attending a high-performing school doesn't guarantee success," said Bertra McGann, mother of two students at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, where 444 points separate the average score of black students from that of white students.

McGann said the gap is about more than race: Even at affluent schools, it's about differences in family income, education and class.

Black students who score poorly on such measures as the SAT might have parents who "lack the capacity to guide and prepare the students for the college admissions process and also the college preparation process," she said. If those students "can be convinced of the link between a college education and the quality of life, then I think we could see the achievement gap narrow."
Please note: We’re not necessarily talking about “black students who score poorly” on the SAT; we’re talking about black students who score less well than tested white kids in their high schools. But this parent makes perfect sense—and her perspective is ignored until the end. In studying these scores, have these school systems tried to adjust for tried-and-true variables like family income and parental educational levels? In life’s early years, one set of loving parents may not help their children develop literacy quite as helpfully as another set of parents does. Result? Their kids may be behind their peers by the fourth grade (or by the second grade; or the first, or in kindergarten). Years later, superintendents, test makers and journalists will find themselves looking for obscurantist ways to “explain” the nagging gap that no one can quite disappear.

THE RIGHT COURSES CAN BE ALL WRONG: “It’s all about taking the right courses,” Weast says. But that is simply, baldly inaccurate. If a student is academically unprepared to take “the right courses,” he or she won’t likely benefit. Last year, the Los Angeles Times presented a brilliant report about a thoroughly decent kid who took “the right course” at her Los Angeles high school. In fact, she took “the right course” six separate times—and she failed it every time, eventually dropping out, in twelfth grade! Why did she fail? Almost surely, she wasn’t prepared to take “the right course”—and almost surely, she shouldn’t have taken it. For Duke Helfand’s superb report, just click here. Meanwhile, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/28/06, for a four-part, straight-A assessment.

Special report: Constructing character!


PART 1—THE GENERAL’S DATA: In finer circles, it just isn’t done. On Friday, Paul Krugman offered warnings about this week’s congressional testimony by General David Petraeus. “First, no independent assessment has concluded that violence in Iraq is down,” Krugman said—and he described some problems with the data the military has been citing. In doing so, he drew on recent reporting by several major news orgs.

“Second,” Krugman said, “Gen. Petraeus has a history of making wildly over-optimistic assessments of progress in Iraq that happen to be convenient for his political masters.” He referred to the op-ed column Petraeus wrote shortly before the 2004 election. The column made optimistic assessments—assessments which didn’t pan out.

Krugman’s language was less than flattering, but his warnings make sense in a world without kings—in a world where we trust-but-verify. As we’ve said, his warnings didn’t spring full-blown from his head; they were based on journalistic work done at several news orgs. But over at the Fox News Channel, Mr. O—Bill O’Reilly—was suitably shocked by the wild things the vile pundit had said. He started Friday evening’s program with “talking points” on the matter:
O’REILLY (9/7/07): On Monday, General David Petraeus will begin testifying about the situation in Iraq, by far, the most important issue in America today. All of us should listen closely to the general and consider what he says. That's is the fair and patriotic thing to do.

But the far left will not listen, because for them, the war in Iraq is an opportunity, not a national security matter. Writing in The New York Times today, radical left columnist Paul Krugman says, "General Petraeus has a history of making wildly over-optimistic assessments of progress in Iraq that happen to be convenient for his political masters."

In other words, Krugman is saying that General Petraeus is in the tank for the Bush administration and his testimony should be discounted.

Now. General Petraeus has devoted his life to defending in this country, while Paul Krugman has devoted his life to smearing people who do not believe in his far left point of view. So I know who I'm trusting in this one.
Bill said we should “listen closely to the general and consider what he says.” But rather than follow his own advice, he jumped ahead to an early conclusion. Mr. O will be trusting Petraeus, he said. He didn’t waste his time discussing the criticisms of the general’s data.

But then, something similar had already happened on that evening’s Special Report. Jim Angle played tape of senators Durbin and Reid talking about the upcoming testimony. Petraeus “has made a number of statements over the years that have not proven to be factual,” Reid said, correctly if somewhat indelicately. Durbin was tougher, predicting that “the Bush-Petraeus report will try to persuade us that violence in Iraq is decreasing” by “carefully manipulating the statistics.” One remark was a statement of fact; one was an unflattering prediction, based on the ongoing use of shaky data. But the “all-stars” knew how wrong this all was. We’ll quote them at some length:
ANGLE (9/7/07): OK. There are two Democratic leaders today talking about the Petraeus report. Fred, even before Petraeus ever gets to the Capitol Hill Democratic leaders are dismissing not only his reports, but also him.

FRED BARNES: His integrity as well. Look, I think they are playing with fire on this with taking on General Petraeus, and particularly Senator Durbin, in saying that he is manipulating the statistics.

The truth is that Petraeus has been very even-handed. And we know what he believes and thinks. Just today there was this interview in the Boston Globe that he gave, and the letter he sent to the troops—I think today or yesterday—where he said, I think, not sugar-coating what was going on there, the thing where he said—he used a football analogy, and he said, we are a long way from the goal line, but we have the ball, and we have momentum.

I think that is fair enough. But General Petraeus can blow Democrats out of the water on Monday just by being credible, which I think he will be.

ANGLE: Mort?

MORT KONDRACKE: I think it is terrible for the Democrats to dismiss what he says without even listening to the man and try to discredit him in the process.
Fred and Mort were both appalled. As usual, Charles took things farther.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: Look, let's understand what Reid and Durbin are saying. They are saying that the commander of American's troops in the middle of a war is fudging the facts—in other words, lying—in order to pursue a strategy he knows is losing, losing his men, attending their memorials, but sending them into a battle he knows is lost.

In the purpose of what? In order to curry favor with an administration that will be gone in 18 months without a successor, and that is at 30 percent in the polls?

That is a way of accusing him of not only of being dishonorable as a soldier, but an idiot as a political thinker. It doesn't stick, it doesn't hold. It makes no sense, and I think his presence on the Hill could be an Ollie North moment, in which a man in uniform who is in a tough job, and if he speaks openly and honestly as he has in the past, will make the politicians attacking him look real bad.
It was odd to cite that “Ollie North moment.” Americans loved North when he first testified, finding him wonderfully “open and honest.” But over the years, their assessment changed—so much so that North was defeated in a Virginia Senate race, a race in which his own party’s Republican senator, John Warner, refused to support his election. But none of these all-stars tried to address the actual criticisms of the general’s data, or of the things Petraeus has said in the past—things which didn’t pan out. They just told us who they trusted—and who we should trust.

No, Durbin and Reid weren’t necessarily saying that Petraeus was “lying,” or that he wants to “pursue a strategy he knows is losing.” We humans “fudge facts” in many ways, with many motives (sometimes without any “motives” at all); many times, we humans “fudge facts” without even knowing we’re doing so. (Meanwhile, Petraeus could imaginably be “fudging some facts” because he does believe his strategy will work in the end.) But then, the modern pundit is an expert on character—and he’s an expert at simple stories, simple tales which function as homilies about character. Indeed, this has been one of the pundit corps’ jobs in the past fifteen years. Our pundits go on TV each night—and tell us who we should trust.

Bill and Fred and Mort and Charles all know who has the outstanding character. Fred knows what Petraeus “believes and thinks”—and he knows that he isn’t “sugar-coating.” None of them bothered addressing the actual merits of the complaints about this general’s data. But then, they’ve played this game for years, announcing who is—and who ain’t—honest.

Constructing character is their product—their most important product. They’re paid to tell rubes who the experts are. And they’re paid to tell rubes who to trust.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Trusting Petraeus.