A BASIC LACK OF SKILL: Today’s new word—disaggregation!


Part 3—One of the basic skills: Is “stagnation” the same thing as “modest improvement?” We’d be inclined to say it isn’t. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/16/11.

Let’s set that semantic dispute to the side. When Sam Dillon reported the latest NAEP scores, was he reporting good news? Is this passage from his report, you see the basic facts, to the extent that his glorious newspaper deigned to report them:
DILLON (11/2/11): In 1990, 13 percent of fourth graders scored at the proficient level in math; this year, 40 percent were proficient, a gain of 27 percentage points.

Reading performance, in contrast, has seen much smaller improvements. In 1992, 29 percent of fourth-grade students were proficient in reading; this year, 34 percent scored at the proficient level, a gain of five percentage points.
In math, the “proficiency” rate has jumped from 13 percent to 40. In reading, it has gone from 29 percent to 34.

On an absolute basis, those rates remain low—though some experts have argued that the NAEP sets an unnaturally high standard for “proficiency.” According to Dillon’s calculations, the math proficiency rate has jumped 27 percentage points. The reading rate hasn’t improved as much, though it too has risen.

(Quick point: The proficiency rate is only one way to measure the change in scores. The NAEP also reports average scores; in many ways, this is a more useful measure. Dillon reported only the one statistic. His newspaper didn’t devote much space to these “gold standard” test scores.)

The passing rate has risen in reading and math, by thenoted amounts. Is this good news or bad? At this point, an important point should be noted. Those gains in overall passing rates have been accomplished during an era when the student population has changed in dramatic ways. If you don’t consider the changes in demographics, you’re only pretending to examine the change in these seminal test scores.

Consider the change in the student population which has been tested in reading. In 1992, the first year Dillon cited, the demographics of fourth-graders who took the NAEP reading test broke down like this:
Student population tested in reading, fourth-grade NAEP, 1992:
White kids: 73 percent
Black kids: 17 percent
Hispanic kids: 7 percent
That’s how the student population broke down as Bill Clinton sought the White House. But this has been a time of significant change in America’s student population. According to the new NAEP report, this was the demographic breakdown in this year’s fourth-grade reading test:
Student population tested in reading, fourth-grade NAEP, 2011:
White kids: 54 percent
Black kids: 15 percent
Hispanic kids: 22 percent
If you’re familiar with numbers, you will note a significant change in the student population. The percentage of Hispanic kids has tripled. The percentage of white kids had dropped by a substantial amount.

Dillon skipped this factor completely in his short report. But if you want to understand what’s happening in our schools, you need to take this significant shift into account.

Here’s why:

Your country still lives in the backwash of a brutal racial history. Meanwhile, global poverty plays a key role in those changing numbers.

Pretty people may prefer to pretend that these factors play no role in the functioning of American schools. But of course, they do play a role; everyone who isn’t an asshole, a shill or a world-class stooge understands that obvious fact. This is why the NAEP “disaggregates” its test scores—reports all outcomes in terms of these basic demographics.

In its brief report about these new scores, the New York Times skipped over this matter. This was part of this very dumb newspaper’s relentless drive to make you and your neighbors as dumb as humanly possible—perhaps even as dumb as they are.

The NAEP “disaggregates” all its results. It shows you how the black kids did, along with the Hispanic kids and the white kids as well. (It also shows you how low-income kids did, as opposed to kids who aren’t low-income.) When it comes to reviewing this nation’s test scores, disaggregation is one of the basic skills!

Here’s why:

Due to this country’s brutal racial history, this country’s delightful, deserving black kids constitute a significantly different population—on average, in educational terms—than this same country’s delightful, deserving white kids. And thanks to the power of global poverty, this nation’s delightful, deserving Hispanic kids also constitute a different population—on average, in educational terms—than the nation’s white kids.

On average, white kids still score substantially higher in reading and math than black kids. They also score substantially higher than Hispanic kids, many of whom come into our schools from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds, perhaps speaking Spanish to boot.

When higher-scoring, more affluent kids are replaced by lower-scoring, poverty-class kids, this produces a significant challenge to the nation’s schools. All these kids are delightful, deserving. But the challenges to the system have changed.

This is why the NAEP “disaggregates” all its data, breaking them down to show the progress achieved by these three different groups. This is why anyone who isn’t an asshole reviews these important scores in “disaggregated” form.

True to its broken soul and its bubble-head brain, the New York Times doesn’t bother.

Poverty is powerful! So is the literacy level of a deserving child’s parents. Everyone knows this, but nobody cares—at least, no one within the mainstream press corps or the “career liberal” world. Within those worlds, the strivers piddle and diddle about, pretending to discuss the schools, pretending they actually care.

But plainly, the strivers don’t care. If they did, they’d get off their asses—and their high horses—and do some real reporting.

Earth to Times: The reported NAEP score gains are fairly remarkable, if we review them in the context of that changing student population. In fealty to corporate interests, our nation keeps pumping up the high-poverty, low-literacy levels within the student population. Despite this significant challenge, the proficiency rates and average scores within our schools continue to rise.

In math, these scores have risen to an amazing degree, a point we will review tomorrow. (We'll review a truly remarkable fact.) In reading, the progress has been slower—but even in reading, test scores have substantially risen in the past twenty years for all three demographic groups.

If you read the New York Times, you aren’t asked to know such things. People! Knowing such things is hard! You also aren’t asked to consider such things when you watch your liberal cable. Instead, the world’s most self-adoring child will clown for you every night. She’ll talk about low-income schools only when black kids get pregnant.

(What a channel! Lawrence will run a promotional spot where he high-mindedly talks about schools. But he will never discuss the schools on his actual program!)

The New York Times is an upper-end preserve. It's run by empty, stupid people. Their cultural goal would seem to be to make you as clueless as they are.

Tomorrow: A truly remarkable fact


  1. Gosh, Bob, you sound angry today! Anger does seem justified, however.

    Why is it that so much education "reporting" never gets beyond the meme or script of the moment? The facts you cite about changing student demographics and NAEP data reporting must be known, if not to Dillon, then to someone at the Times. Sure, the devil is always in the details, but it shouldn't be beyond the abilities of well-paid scribes and editors at the NYT and the WP to dig into those details.

    What's driving them? Laziness? Ineptitude? Venality? Yikes.

  2. "What's driving them? Laziness? Ineptitude? Venality? Yikes."

    None of the above! Nearly all "journalism" in the U.S. today is "political reporting", and is typically innocent of the distractions of either actual policy or the factual basis of factual claims. And for good reason -- facts are irrelevant when you're either covering what other dimwits believe or repeating conventional wisdom.

    There's also that notion forwarded by some NYU prof(?), about the dominance of "savviness" and the Church of the Savvy, in American "journalism" today -- where knowing how the world works, or thinking one knows, rules and animates all coverage. This religion makes any genuine liberal an idiot in the eyes of the scribbling classes, since everybody knows corporate America has already won, and won big!

  3. "...everyone who isn’t an asshole, a shill or a world-class stooge understands that obvious fact." BRILLIANT! In 15 words, Mr. Somerby nails it.