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BUT WHO WILL TEST THE TEST-MAKERS! Michael Winerip thrills the soul with a look at one state’s easy test: // link // print // previous // next //

BUT WHO WILL TEST THE TEST-MAKERS: Last June, the shills were out in force, pandering to the brilliant Mayor Bloomberg. Test scores had risen among New York City’s fourth-graders, and everyone knew that it just had to be due to the mayor’s brilliant policies. (Bloomberg even said so himself!) Of course, fourth-grade scores had risen all over the state of New York (details below), in districts where Bloomberg had no connection. But so what? People like the Times’ Gail Collins have played this game with urban children for decades. It isn’t worth seeking the truth about their lives and their interests; it’s all about pimping the perfumed and powerful. Here was the laughable, know-nothing way the Times editorialized on the subject:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (6/6/05): Skeptics, including Mr. Bloomberg's political opponents, of course rushed to challenge the results, suggesting that the test was too easy or that teachers spent too much time on test preparation. And it is indeed the case that city test scores rise and fall and rise again over time. But the latest results suggest that the schools are making progress—and that Mr. Bloomberg has every right to take a bow.
As noted, since test scores had jumped all over the state, there was every reason to suspect that the tests may have been “too easy.” But Collins scoffed at the tiresome “skeptics”—and rushed to blow smoke at the mayor. (Headline: “Kudos for the Education Mayor.”) But then, mainstream press pseudo-liberals have shilled this way about urban schools for the past forty years. They always say things are getting better—and that their prince gets to take a deep bow. In doing so, they sell out urban kids’ interests, of course. But so what? It makes their perfumed class feel good. And that’s what this is often all about.

Yes, New York’s fourth-graders scored higher last spring than they’d done in 2004. But a rise in test scores only matters if the two tests in question are equally difficult.And huzzah! This week, at long last, the Times’ superlative education writer, Michael Winerip, went to a school whose fourth-graders scored well and asked the locals why that had happened. In particular, he went to Public School 159 in the Bronx and spoke to its “respected veteran principal,” Frances Rosenstein. Why had PS 159's fourth graders done so much better this year? Uh-oh! The principal tattled:
WINERIP (10/5/05): How did she do it? New teachers? No, same teachers. New curriculum? No, same dual-language curriculum for a student body that is 96 percent Hispanic and poor (100 percent free lunches). New resources? Same.

So? ''The state test was easier,'' she said. Ms. Rosenstein, who has been principal 13 years and began teaching in 1974, says the 2005 state English test was unusually easy and the 2004 test unusually hard. ''I knew it the minute I opened the test booklets,'' she said.

Rosenstein didn’t credit her own brilliance, or that of the fabulous mayor. “The state test was easier” this past year, she said. She knew it as soon as she opened the booklet. (The reading passages were much less complex, and more accessible for minority children, she says.) To Rosenstein, that’s why test scores rose in the city—and across New York State as a whole.

Of course, evaluations can’t be this simple. Rosenstein thinks the test was easier, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s so. Indeed, a state education spokesman disagrees with her view. Here’s Winerip’s account of their exchange:
WINERIP: In an e-mail message, Jonathan Burman, a state education spokesman, said there was no cultural bias on the 2004 test. He said the 2004 and 2005 tests were extensively field-tested. ''We found that the passages could be understood by all students, including urban students,'' he wrote.

He acknowledged that the 2004 test was harder but said the state compensated by using a tougher scale to score the 2005 test. ''Students had to answer a few more questions correctly in 2005 and get more raw points in order to get the same scaled score as in 2004,'' he said. But even if the 2005 test was scaled, scores still soared statewide, with 70.4 percent at grade level, up 8.2 percentage points from 2004 and with several cities—Yonkers, Syracuse, Rochester—posting increases even higher than New York City's.

We’ll lightly challenge our hero here. Winerip only spoke with a “spokesman,” not a testing director; it’s likely that Burman isn’t fully equipped to evaluate the technical claims he’s presenting. Indeed, if the state of New York produces new tests every year, the state should have a technical manual which explains the way each test was developed; this manual should explain how the state knows that the difficulty is equal from one year to the next. For ourselves, we’ve long been “skeptics” in this general area; ever since individual states got into the business of creating their own high-stakes tests, we’ve wondered if the various states really know how to develop good tests. The endless blunders afflicting state programs keep suggesting that some states don’t have such expertise—and Burman’s assurances are vague and unconvincing. We’d love to see Winerip push a bit harder to find out how these tests were created. It’s outrageous to see states like New York fumble and bumble with their high-stakes testing programs. Major papers like the Times should push to determine if they’re really up to the task.

Our hero, Winerip, is the man for this mission. We may follow suit as this web site evolves. But then again, there are always the local feel-gooders (like the Times ed board), cranking out the high boosterism. Last spring, the “skeptics” had every reason to look askance at the pleasing results of those ballyhooed tests. But Gail Collins did what pseudo-libs have long done—she ran to assure us that the system is working. It’s only the interests of poor kids, after all. And in the mainstream press corps—we’ve watched for forty years—kids like that rarely seem to matter.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: In July, we discussed these score gains in a four-part report. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/5/05, then click your way through to the finish.

IN THE PAST: We’re not as current on these matters as we were in the past. But if we’re not mistaken, the American Psychological Association used to require that test developers produce technical manuals. You can’t just throw a test together, although we’d guess that some states began doing just that when they got in the high-stakes test business. In the past decade, many states have had to abandon their own statewide programs when they saw how many kids failed to pass them. This suggests that these states were inept and clueless in the test development of these tests. Does the state of New York turn out technical manuals? It’s time the Times stood up and asked.

A CHANGE IN THE HOWLER—PART 2: It’s coming! Hold on!

HIS MASTER’S VOICE: We chuckled when we read the following passage in this morning’s Post. Peter Baker was describing heated meetings in which the White House tried to sell Harriet Miers to disgruntled conservatives:

BAKER (10/6/05): At one point in the first of the two off-the-record sessions, according to several people in the room, White House adviser Ed Gillespie suggested that some of the unease about Miers "has a whiff of sexism and a whiff of elitism." Irate participants erupted and demanded that he take it back. Gillespie later said he did not mean to accuse anyone in the room but "was talking more broadly" about criticism of Miers.
Those opposing Miers are “elitists,” the White House is piously saying. But then, we already knew the White House was saying that because we watched Special Report last night. Brit Hume channeled his master’s voice in this absurd presentation:
HUME (10/5/05): And now the most engrossing two minutes in television, the latest from the "Political Grapevine."

Question: Apart from their aversion to Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, what do conservative commentators Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, David Frum, Laura Ingraham, and George Will have in common? The Ivy League, that's what.

All except Ingraham and Will went to Harvard. Ingraham went to Dartmouth. And George Will studied at Princeton and later Oxford. Former Justice Department official John Yu, who wrote in the "Washington Post" yesterday that President Bush had swung and missed with the Miers nomination, is also a Harvard man.

Law professor Douglas Kmiec, who defended Miers in the Post, went to Northwestern. Prominent Democrat Martin Frost, who has praised Miers, went to the University of Missouri. And Miers herself went to Southern Methodist University.

You just can’t be a bigger hack. Is that what they taught this big dope at St. Albans? How to be the world’s number-one elite hack?