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TIMES TURNS GLOOM-AND-DOOMY! The Times talked up the mayor it loves—then went gloom-and-doomy on Bush: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, OCTOBER 24, 2005

TIMES TURNS GLOOM-AND-DOOMY: We had to laugh at Saturday’s Times editorial concerning last week’s NAEP results. “Happy Talk on School Reform,” read the headline; the editors battered President Bush for doing what they themselves often do—for pretending that things may be better in the schools than a set of test scores really suggests. The Times just hates that “happy talk”—now. But uh oh! Just last spring, the Times pretended that New York City schools were gaining big ground thanks to Mayor Bloomberg’s brilliant policies (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/6/05, with links to prior reporting). But now, when Bush does much the same thing, the Times rises up in high dudgeon. The Times talks happy—for pols they like. For Bush, they turn gloom-and-doomy.

Gloom-and-doomy? In fact, the Times did something else in this editorial—the paper engaged in some “unhappy talk,” exaggerating the miseries found in this year’s NAEP scores. This year’s math and reading scores “were actually dismal,” the editors groused. Then they explained what they meant:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (10/22/05): The fourth grade reading scores...were basically flat compared with 2003, even though the states are supposed to be ramping up student achievement and narrowing the achievement gap between poor and wealthy students. Fourth graders' math performance was also a clear disappointment, at a time when the country hopes to catch up with the international competition in science.
In that passage, we see the willful illiteracy which characterizes so much elite commentary on public schooling. And we see the Times play gloom-and-doom with Bush, where once they talked happy for Bloomberg.

Readers, how “dismal” were this year’s fourth grade scores? Were they “basically flat compared with 2003?” Yes, they were—but then, such scores have been “basically flat” since NAEP began the current testing regime back in 1992! (NAEP’s basic charts and graphs make this perfectly clear. For example, just click here.) In 1992, 62 percent of fourth-graders tested “at or above basic” in reading on NAEP. By 2003 (eleven years later), that number had jumped way up—to 63 percent—and this year, it rose to 64. The Times calls this one-point score gain “dismal”—without telling readers that there had been a one-point gain in the eleven years which preceded. Meanwhile, was fourth-grade math a “clear disappointment” this year? That’s in the eye of the disappointed; this year, 80 percent of fourth graders scored “at or above basic” in math, compared with 77 percent in 2003. If one considers another basic NAEP measure, the average fourth grade math score went up three points in the past two years—compared with a gain of eleven points over the previous seven-year span. Sorry, but it’s hard to find anything shocking, for good or ill, in this year’s fourth grade scores. And it’s silly to think that these scores provide some major test of No Child Left Behind. Here at THE HOWLER, we’re inclined to think that the program is ill-advised. But it’s silly to think that this first group of scores tells us much, one way or the other.

But dilettantism is widely observed when press elites discuss public schools. How absurd does the commentary get? Try to believe that the Times’ Sam Dillon included this “analysis” in Thursday’s news report about the NAEP scores:

DILLON (10/20/05): Gage Kingsbury, director of research at the Northwest Educational Evaluation Association, a nonprofit group based in Oregon that carries out testing in 1,500 school districts, said the results raised new concerns about the feasibility of reaching the law's goal of full proficiency for all students by 2014.

Fourth-grade math students showed some of the most rapid progress in closing the achievement gap between black and white students, Mr. Kingsbury said. Extrapolating from those results, he said, black and white students would probably be performing at equal proficiency levels by 2034. Other results, like eighth-grade reading, suggest it will take 200 years or more for the gap to close, he said.

''The change is moving too slowly,'' Mr. Kingsbury said.

Yes, black kids scored better this year in fourth grade math, an effect which may or may not be sustained in future years of testing. But good God! Did anyone really believe that we were going to reach “full proficiency for all students by 2014,” the absurd goal the law’s designers announced when NCLB was launched? Anyone who thought that ought to be barred from future discussion of public schooling—and from making silly projections, spanning centuries, based on results of one test.

Kingsbury’s comments were basically silly. Reporter Dillon was silly to quote him. And the fatuous editors rushed to blame Bush for doing what they themselves tend to do when New York City mayors are involved. Bush should drop the “happy talk,” they groused—and we tend to agree with that. But they should stop the illiterate gloom-and doom—and when it comes to happy talk about small test gains of questionable meaning, it was they, just months ago, who were quite happily talking.

FOURTH GRADE READING OVER THE YEARS: Here are some basic data the Times should have used in judging this year’s test results. Were this year’s NAEP results really “dismal?” These are the numbers scoring “at or above basic” in fourth grade reading from the time this test regime started:

1992: 62* percent at or above basic
1994: 60* percent
1998: 62*/60 percent (for explanation, see below)
2000: 59 percent
2002: 64 percent
2003: 63 percent
2005: 64 percent
It’s hard to know what to make of those scores. In general, we’d say: Not much. Obviously, the change in scores from 2000 to 2002 is the one change which seems to stand out.

For the record, NAEP made a procedural adjustment in 1998, including students “with accommodations”—kids with disabilities or “second language” issues who need special testing procedures. Even with the special procedures, these kids tend to score somewhat lower; the asterisks refer to data from testing sessions which did not include these kids. In 1998, the inclusion of kids “with accommodations” knocked the passing rate down two points. In that year, the passing rate would have been 62 percent had the old rules obtained; with the new rules, it fell to 60. From that point on, all the sessions included kids with accommodations.

At any rate, is that score in 2005 really so “dismal?” It’s hard to miss a troubling fact; it ties the score from 2002 as the highest reading score ever recorded! Meanwhile, the fourth grade passing rate in math is the highest ever achieved (data below). Might the Times have mentioned this fact before slamming the current scores as “dismal?” We’d say that this year’s fourth grade scores don’t really tell us all that much. But the Times, talking happy just last spring, was all gloom-and-doom this past weekend.

FOURTH GRADE MATH SCORES: Here are NAEP’s fourth grade math scores. The current testing regime in math began in 1990. All sessions are included:

1990: 50* percent at or above basic
1992: 59* percent
1996: 64*/63 percent
2000: 65 percent
2003: 77 percent
2005: 80 percent
Here, there are two big jumps which seem to stand out—the jump from 1990 to 1992, and the jump from 2000 to 2003. Like Elvis, we have suspicious minds; given the fifteen-year rise in passing rate, we’d be eager to know if this test has been consistently difficult from 1990 to the present.

For the record, we have no idea what analysis would show. Isn’t it strange that you never see such efforts in our nation’s great papers? These data suggest the possibility that fourth grade kids have done substantially better in math over time. Is that true? Are these apparent gains real? And wouldn’t most folk like to know that?

Special report—Culture corner

IN DEFENSE OF MARK RUSSELL: If there’s one thing we absolutely hate, we hate it when these ambitious young scribes try to make their critical “bones” by taking cheap shots at Mark Russell. At the Washington Times, Stefan Sullivan reviewed last week’s charity gala, the “Funniest Celebrity in Washington” contest. And yes, the bright young scribe was really quite clever. When he cited the special all-star guests, he started with a ho-hum remark to which no one could really object:

SULLIVAN (10/21/05): To spice things up, or give attendees their money's worth, the organizers brought in such heavy hitters as [Washington] comedian Bob Somerby and the legendary Mark Russell.
Clever, isn’t he? After all, who could challenge a statement like that? But you know how these ambitious scribes are! Just like that, he turned on Mark Russell:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): Striking was that their material was not all that much better than that of the celebrity amateurs—but their timing, poise and polish announced they were the real deal. Mr. Somerby, on the Midwest riverboat gambling craze, mentioned that Nebraska is thinking of [putting in] rivers. Old pro Mr. Russell, behind the piano as usual, satirized on the back of Broadway show tunes and Cole Porter. ("Night and Day" became Tom DeLay—you get the picture.)

Still, his well-honed shtick might have seemed a little dated to the younger crowd. Lifting, say, Kid Rock, to mock Iraq. Now, that would be funny.

Typically, they’ll drag in someone else, trying to hide their real agenda. But does anyone actually fall for that trick? When they get to the phrases like “well-honed shtick,” their actual target becomes all too clear. They’re attacking one party—Mark Russell.

The Simpsons did it—and they thought it was “smart.” But when they target Mark Russell’s material, we rise in full-throated protest.

EDITED VERSION: If you’re too busy to read the whole thing, we offer a lightly edited version:

SULLIVAN, LIGHTLY EDITED: To spice things up, or give attendees their money's worth, the organizers brought in such heavy hitters as Washington comedian Bob Somerby and the legendary Mark Russell.

Striking was that their material was...the real deal. Mr. Somerby, on the Midwest riverboat gambling craze, mentioned that Nebraska is thinking of putting in rivers. Old pro Mr. Russell, behind the piano as usual, satirized on the back of Broadway show tunes and Cole Porter.

Don’t worry—if Porter were still around, these kids would go after him too. The same way they do with Mark Russell.