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THE GIFT OF FACTS! Are schools ignoring their high-scoring kids? A Post column founders on facts: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 30, 2005

JOYS OF THE SEASON: There’s so little news at the end of the year that education sometimes gets extra attention. Example: On Christmas morning, the Washington Post published this strange account of a recent study of adult literacy. The fumbling article raises so many points (often unintentionally) that we plan to focus on it next week. When we do, we’ll touch on this December 26 Post report—a report about an attempt to help Appalachian kids learn to read. These children—from eastern Tennessee and Kentucky—were born into a low-literacy culture. Reuters’ Alan Elsner explains, once again, where that accident of birth and history takes kids:
ELSNER (12/26/05): The majority of children arriving for their first day of kindergarten are already well behind their peers in more affluent neighborhoods, said Dana Slone, principal of the neighboring Cross Creek Elementary School.

"The majority have no phonetic awareness at all. They are not aware that sounds make words. They have never been read to at home," she said.

To quote that recent CAP report: ''Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.” And good news! Since these Appalachian kids are (presumably) mostly white, even Lord Drum can read of their plight without rising off his brocaded chaise to insist that such racist discussion be ended (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/07/05). Meanwhile, we recommend William Raspberry’s latest column (December 26) about his own pre-school literacy program. According to Raspberry, many children in his Mississippi home town “have never been read to at home,” either. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/17/05, for an earlier treatment.

Today, though, we examine another report—an op-ed in the Washington Post about the schooling of high-achievers. Has No Child Left Behind created a world in which gifted students get ignored in our schools? In the Post, Susan Goodkin asserts that it has. We think her column—and some blog reactions—help us see the current state of America’s educational discourse.

THE GIFT OF FACTS: Are gifted children getting short-changed because of the No Child Left Behind program? If they are, that’s a bad thing—and Susan Goodkin says that it’s happening. “By forcing schools to focus their time and funding almost entirely on bringing low-achieving students up to proficiency, NCLB sacrifices the education of the gifted students who will become our future biomedical researchers, computer engineers and other scientific leaders,” she writes in the Post. According to Goodkin, here’s how it works:

GOODKIN (12/27/05): [W]ith the entire curriculum geared to ensuring that every last child reaches grade-level proficiency, there is precious little attention paid to the many children who master the standards early in the year and are ready to move on to more challenging work. What are these children supposed to do while their teachers struggle to help the lowest-performing students? Rather than acknowledging the need to provide a more advanced curriculum for high-ability children, some schools mask the problem by dishonestly grading students as below proficiency until the final report card, regardless of their actual performance.
Ugh! We don’t know if Goodkin is right (more below), but her claim at least makes a kind of sense. NCLB penalizes schools whose low-scoring kids fail to reach the “proficient” standard. By contrast, there’s no penalty if a school’s high-achieving kids fail to score at the “advanced” level. It’s certainly possible that some public schools are ignoring smarty-pants kids for this reason. Result? In the aftermath of Goodkin’s column, a number of “bloggers” began debating the ethics of this alleged problem.
But alas! Few of these “bloggers” showed any real sign of knowing much about public schools. Since we spent a fair number of years (long ago) teaching in low-income schools—and since we know how to check basic facts—we thought we’d offer reality-based reactions to Goodkin’s column.

Kids are very different: Goodkin invites us to ponder a critical fact—kids are very different. Consider fifth-grade kids, for example. Many American kids in fifth grade will be functioning years above “grade level.” These kids will be bored by “fifth grade” work, just as Goodkin suggests. Meanwhile, many other fifth-grade kids will be years below traditional level. They won’t be able to read and learn from textbooks written at fifth-grade level; in math, they’ll be flummoxed by “fifth-grade” work. Yes, the range of fifth-grade kids is wide. But public schools have to find ways to challenge and educate all these children. Goodkin’s column helps us remember: Fifth-graders are very, very different.

At any rate, teachers will work with two types of kids for whom “grade level” work is a bummer. The children who are far below grade level deserve to receive appropriate instruction—instruction that doesn’t leave them for dead because it’s light-years too difficult. But children who are far above level deserve appropriate instruction too. They shouldn’t be consigned to years of boredom as teachers focus on simpler material. Public schools must serve all kids—not just those at traditional grade level.

This is NOT a zero-sum game: When bloggers debated Goodkin’s piece, they often cut to a pointless chase. Should we focus on high-achieving kids, they asked, or should we focus on kids near the bottom? As they engaged in this pointless debate, they suggested that this is a zero-sum game. But in the real world, it just isn’t.

Some schools—in eastern Tennessee, for example—may enroll large numbers of kids who are years below grade level. Others schools may have many kids who are performing above traditional norms. But whatever the blend may be, teachers in all kinds of schools should have materials and instructional programs geared to the actual kids they are teaching. For example, teachers of low-scoring kids should have textbooks and supplementary materials that those kids can actually read. For most such teachers, this is a pipedream—a point we hope to examine in detail in the year ahead.

Yes, it’s hard to find appropriate materials for kids who may be years below level. And over and over, the lack of such materials will make their “education” a disorganized mess. But guess what? Producing such materials would take nothing away from the education of other kids—kids who may be on grade level, or even several years beyond it. We must insist that low-scoring kids have instructional materials that are fully appropriate. Providing such materials takes nothing away from the education of higher-scoring kids.

As always, the facts were irrelevant: No, this isn’t a zero-sum game; we can help high- and low-scoring kids simultaneously. But then, as usual, the facts were irrelevant when “bloggers” began debating this topic. Is Goodkin actually right when she says that gifted children are being ignored? We don’t have the slightest idea, but we do know how to look up basic facts. And uh-oh! The one hard fact she actually cites turns out to be extremely misleading, if not wholly bogus. In the blogs, though, no one bothered checking the facts; they just got busy “blogging” the ethics. But so it goes in our underfed discussions of public schools.

What’s the fact which Goodkin cited? In the following paragraph, she makes a claim about the number of California kids scoring at the “advanced” level in math:

GOODKIN: Perhaps...the drafters of NCLB labor under the misconception that gifted students will fare well academically regardless of whether their special learning needs are met. Ironically, included in the huge body of evidence disproving this notion are my state's standardized test scores—the very test scores at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act. Reflecting the schools' inattention to high performers, they show that students achieving "advanced" math scores early in elementary school all too frequently regress to merely "proficient" scores by the end. In recent years the percentage of California students scoring in the "advanced" math range has declined by as much as half between second and fifth grade.
Yikes! To our ear, it sounded like fewer and fewer kids were scoring at the “advanced” level in math. Goodkin claims that this has occurred because of “the schools' inattention to high performers,” inattention that has allegedly resulted from the rules of No Child Left Behind.

But Goodkin’s claim is hard to support if one looks at the actual facts. In math, how many California kids have scored “advanced” in recent years? In 2002, 16 percent of second graders scored “advanced” in math on the state’s testing program (the STAR). But in 2005, a much higher number—28 percent— scored at the “advanced” level! And how about on the fifth-grade level? The numbers have gone way up there, too. So you’ll know, here are the percentages of kids scoring “advanced” in grades 2-5 in those years:

California kids scoring “advanced,” STAR program, math
Grade 2: 16 percent in 2002; 28 percent in 2005
Grade 3: 12 percent in 2002; 24 percent in 2005
Grade 4: 13 percent in 2002; 26 percent in 2005
Grade 5: 7 percent in 2002; 19 percent in 2005
Contrary to what Goodkin seems to say, the numbers are up, at every grade level, since NCLB went into effect. In fact, the percentage of kids scoring “advanced” in math has more than doubled. In fairness, Goodkin may mean something different; she may mean that more kids score “advanced” in second grade than in fifth. (In 2005, 28 percent of second-graders scored “advanced” in math, compared with 19 percent of fifth graders.) But uh-oh! Construction of cut-off points on these tests is a fairly imprecise business. Did fewer fifth-graders score “advanced” because their schools were ignoring high performers? Presumably, that’s a possibility. But it’s also possible that the fifth-grade test is a bit more demanding than its second-grade counterpart. And by the way: There is no drop-off from second grade to fifth in the numbers of kids who score “advanced” in reading. Here are the numbers for California’s “English/language arts” test:
California kids scoring “advanced,” STAR program, English/language arts
Grade 2: 9 percent in 2002; 14 percent in 2005
Grade 3: 11 percent in 2002; 10 percent in 2005
Grade 4: 14 percent in 2002; 20 percent in 2005
Grade 5: 9 percent in 2002; 17 percent in 2005
This year, in English/language arts, fifth graders did better than second graders. And again, the numbers of kids scoring “advanced” is way up since NCLB began.

Bottom line? Taking these test results at face value, many more kids scored “advanced” in 2005 than in 2002. Whatever they’ve done in California since NCLB began, the numbers of kids scoring “advanced” on the statewide tests has been growing. How can Goodkin make her claim in the face of these basic data? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply can’t say. But our nation’s education debate is often weak on its facts and its logic. This week, the Post let Goodkin say what she pleased—and “bloggers” started blogging without ever noting that her facts didn’t seem to add up.

WHERE DO FACTS COME FROM: Omigod! We first saw these facts about STAR results in the comments section of this post by Paul Glastris, editor of the Washington Monthly. (Click on “Comments,” then scroll down—a bit less than halfway—to the post signed by “Josh.”) Meanwhile, if you want to issue low, mordant chuckles, note the way these basic facts had no effect on the debate in those “comments.” As is so often the case in these matters, it’s as if the facts didn’t exist.

By the way, we did some googling, and we learned that “Josh” is Josh Benson, education writer for the Dallas Morning News. We say this: All hail education writers like Benson, writers who know how to double-check facts. Not all scribes are inclined to be bothered, as we’ll see in the months ahead.

A WORD OF CAUTION: Absent technical analysis, there’s no way to know if this year’s STAR tests are as “hard” as those from 2002. It may be that more kids are scoring “advanced” because the state has “lowered the bar” (intentionally or unintentionally). But these seem to be the data which Goodkin referenced—and they don’t seem to back up her case.

ONE MORE (OUTRAGEOUS) GIFT OF THE SEASON: We also recommend Bob Herbert’s December 26 column, in which Herbert issues a challenge to current black leadership. Because Times columns are no longer public, we’ll cadge a fairly large chunk:

HERBERT (12/26/05): Black children routinely get a rough start in life. Two-thirds of them are born out of wedlock, and nearly half of all black children brought up in a single-parent household are poor. Those kids are much more likely to drop out of school, struggle economically, be initiators or victims of violence, and endure a variety of serious health problems.

We can pretend that these terrible things are not happening, but they are. There's a crisis in the black community, and it won't do to place all of the blame on society and government.

I've spent years writing about unfairness and appalling injustices. Society is unfair and racism is still a rampant evil. But much of the suffering in black America could be alleviated by changes in behavior. What's more, those behavioral changes would empower the community in ways that would make it easier to successfully confront opponents in government and push the society in a more equitable direction.

The problems facing black people today are comparable in magnitude to those of the Jim Crow era of the 20th century. There were leaders in those days who were equal to the challenge.

In the past, black leaders “were equal to the challenge,” Herbert says. He goes on to say that today’s leaders have fallen short of that high standard. (“[T]here's a vacuum where our leadership should be.”) No doubt Lord Drum, perched on his high divan, is upset to see Herbert engaged in such chatter. Would it not be better—better by far—to “pretend that these terrible things are not happening?” But letter writers respond today, despite the urgings they get from their lords. In our view, these letters are worth perusing, including the pair from the teachers in low-income schools. No one, of course, has “the answer.”