FOOLED ABOUT SCHOOLS: How we would have reported those test scores!


Also, conclusions and cautions: We’ll admit it: We remain fascinated by the reporting of the latest international test scores.

For our money, American students did surprising well on last year’s international tests—especially given the decade of disparagement aimed at American schools in the mainstream press.

We think those new scores are surprisingly good. But in the Washington Post and the New York Times, gloom and doom still drove the reporting. So too in the Associated Press, where familiar old scripting prevailed.

(For part 1 of last week's five-part report, go ahead: Just click here.)

How would we have reported those scores? How would our news report have started? Like USA Today and the Christian Science Monitor, we would have been inclined to see less gloom in those new test scores.

Had we been writing the news report, we would have started like this:
REPORTING THE NEW TEST SCORES: Especially on the fourth-grade level, American students did surprisingly well on a new set of international tests whose results were released today.

Students in a half-dozen Asian nations continue to lead the world in math, generally by substantial margins. And American eighth-graders performed less well in math and science than their fourth-grade counterparts.

But in reading, American fourth-graders outperformed Germany, Canada, England, France and every other large nation which took part, with the exception of Russia. (Eighth-graders weren’t tested in reading.)

In math, American students lagged well behind the Asian tigers, but they matched or surpassed all other large nations at the fourth-grade level. In fourth and eighth grades, their scores were “not measurably different” from those of students in Finland, a smaller nation which has long been praised for its outstanding schools and its high scores on international tests.

The performance by American students may seem surprising, given the demographic complexity of the U.S. student population and the persistent criticism aimed at American public schools. Judging by these new test scores alone, that criticism may be overstated.
USA Today thought the real news in those new test scores involved the success of American students. Given past decades of denigration, we’d be inclined to agree.

Below, we’ll offer several points of caution. But first, we can’t resist giving one more example of the way our big newspapers worked to extend the Prevailing Group Story about our failing schools.

In our own imagined report, we quickly noted the strong performance of U.S. fourth graders in reading. We even named some of the big, famous nations American kids outperformed.

Especially given past denigration, that strong performance strikes us as news. But this is all the space that reading score got in the Scrooge-like Washington Post:
LAYTON (12/11/12): Students across the United States have made some gains but continue to lag behind many of their Asian counterparts in reading, math and science, according to the results of two international tests released Tuesday.

U.S. fourth-graders' math and reading scores improved since the last time students took the tests several years ago, while eighth-graders remained stable in math and science. Americans outperformed the international average in all three subjects but remained far behind students in such places as Singapore and Hong Kong, especially in math and science.
How well did U.S. fourth-graders perform in reading? That represents the Washington Post’s complete report on that very strong performance! After reading the Post’s report, readers would have no earthly idea how well the nation’s fourth-graders actually did on that international test.

In fact, American students did not “remain far behind students in such [atypical] places as Singapore and Hong Kong” on that international reading test. But literally, that’s what the Washington Post reported. The Post only said the mayhem was worse in the case of science and math.

To all intents and purposes, the strong performance by the nation’s fourth graders was disappeared—flushed down the memory hole. But uh-oh:

The state of Florida took the fourth grade reading test as a separate entity. When Florida achieved a high reading score, the Washington Post went to great lengths to debunk its apparent success.

The nation’s very strong performance was barely mentioned. But concerning Florida’s performance, the gloomy Post went on and on and on:
LAYTON: A handful of U.S. states volunteered to give the tests to their students and be graded as if they were countries, to see how their students perform compared with international benchmarks. Virginia, Maryland and the District were not among those states.

Florida, the only state that volunteered to take the reading exam, emerged as a leading scorer on that test among all countries and states that administered it. Only students in Hong Kong scored higher, but the difference was not significant.

Buckley said the results demonstrate that Florida is "capable of performing as well as or better than some of the countries and other education systems that are regarded as international leaders."

But skeptics say Florida's unusually strong performance is an illusion.

Boston College professor Walter Haney said Florida's scores are misleading because, since 2004, Florida has held back third-grade students who are not reading on grade level, preventing them from advancing to the fourth grade, when the test is administered. As a result, test-takers in Florida do not include students who are struggling with reading, Haney said.

In the 2010-2011 school year, the fourth grade in Florida had 4 percent fewer students than the third grade from the previous year, Haney said. That meant a significant number of weak readers were held back and weren't among the fourth-graders who took the test. Students who are held back are more likely to drop out of school, Haney said.

"It's really a tragedy in the making," he said. "When kids are flunked, if they're over-age by the time they hit high school, 65 to 90 percent will drop out. It's not a sound educational strategy. It doesn't increase achievement and dramatically increases the possibility they will drop out."
Too perfect! As it turns out, the state of Florida’s high test score is a tragedy in the making! The high score by the nation’s fourth graders didn’t so much as get mentioned.

As the Post continued, so did its amazingly selective presentation. We cited this passage on Friday:
LAYTON (continuing directly): Several states that took the test independently scored higher than the U.S. average in eighth-grade math, including North Carolina, Indiana, Massachusetts and Minnesota. North Carolina also outscored the U.S. average in fourth-grade math. Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado exceeded the U.S. average in eighth-grade science.

Even those high performers have much ground to gain on international leaders. In Singapore, for example, 40 percent of eighth-grade students scored high enough in science to be deemed "advanced." In Massachusetts, about one-quarter of students reached that mark.
Several states scored higher than the U.S. average in various subjects, readers were pointlessly told. Readers weren’t told that these states tended to outscore the bulk of the world!

In eighth-grade science, for example, Massachusetts outscored every major nation which took the test, including the Asian tigers Taiwan, Korea and Japan. But Post readers weren’t allowed to know that. Instead, the Post kept pouring on gloom. The Post mentioned only Singapore, the one entity—the one very small entity—which managed to outscore the Bay State.

In such ways, our major newspapers worked to Keep Gloom Alive. In the process, we’d have to say that these major newspapers distorted these new test scores.

We’ll side with colorful USA Today over our gloomy, well-scripted journalistic giants. On balance, we think the news in these new test scores included the surprisingly strong performance by American students.

That said, we offer some cautions:
Point of caution: These test scores came from the TIMSS and the PIRLS, two major international testing programs. On the third major international program, the PISA, the U.S. tends to score less well, and Finland tends to score better. (The PISA tests 15-year-olds only.)

Point of caution: The Post’s critique of Florida’s fourth-grade score may well have merit. (We’d like to see a similar analysis of statewide test scores in Texas.) On balance, the selective fury with which the Post sought to debunk the Florida score represents a disservice to readers. But the analysis may have some merit—with regard to this one state.

Point of caution: In comment threads, some liberals tend to cite a statistic published by the NCES—a statistic which shows the scores of American students in schools where fewer than ten percent of students receive free or reduced price meals. Such students tend to score very well as compared to national averages from other countries. But a very small number of American schools fit into this category. For that reason, this is a classic misleading comparison.
For ourselves, we remain fascinated by these new scores—and by the way the scores were reported. In our view, our biggest newspapers worked quite hard to Keep Script Alive through their selective reporting.

According to this treasured plutocrat script, our public schools pretty much stink, as do their ratty teachers with their infernal unions. In our view, these new test scores tend to challenge that famous old script.

For the most part, people weren’t told.

For ourselves, we were struck by how well our schools did on these tests. Our schools face tremendous demographic challenges due to our brutal racial history and due to our immigration practices, which tend to present our schools with lots of delightful, deserving kids from challenging educational backgrounds.

But good lord! As the percentage of low-income and minority kids keeps growing, American test scores keep getting better. We think that’s a striking good-news story—but the plutocrats and their tribunes don’t want you to hear or enjoy it.

And by the way, one final point:

We liberals don’t care about this. The career liberal world quit on low-income kids long ago. The career liberal world rarely speaks up on behalf of American teachers.

When you “disaggregate” these new test scores, white students do surprisingly well; black and Hispanic students keep doing better. But how can we help our low-income students of whatever race?

Your liberal journals almost never discuss that. Rather plainly, these journals don’t care about topics like that; they quit on these topics a long time ago. You saw these new test scores discussed here last week. And, unless you read Kevin Drum, you probably saw them discussed nowhere else.

Did you see a single word at the liberal journal, Salon? Did you see a single word anywhere else?

As we told you when Trayvon Martin was killed:

We liberals complain when children get shot. Beyond that, we don’t seem to care.

Epilog: We laugh at Texas' high-scoring minority kids. Darlings! They're from a red state!


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  3. There is nothing misleading about using the difference in scores between low poverty and other schools to make a point: that higher poverty in the U.S. is a significant driving force behind the difference in scores compared to countries with low poverty. I have not seen it used for any other purpose. It's a data point, just as Massachusetts and Minnesota comparative scores are.

  4. It's not fair to judge US media on the basis of the WaPo, since its parent company (The Washington Post Company) has a big investment in for-profit education. If they reported educational matters fairly it might hurt their bottom line.

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