Breaking: Stanford professor reveals real facts about American test scores!

MONDAY, APRIL 29, 2013

When will the New York Times agree to tell the whole truth: Yesterday, in the New York Times, the week of the professors continued.

In a front-page piece in the Sunday Review, Stanford professor Sean Reardon got a whole bunch of things right. At the end of a very lengthy piece, he argued a set of congenial lines.

How can we help low-income kids achieve more in school? Here’s what he said we should do:
REARDON (4/28/13): So how can we move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background? Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children's educational opportunities from the day they are born. Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool teachers and child care providers. These are not new ideas, but we have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to implement and just get on with it.
If his facts are right, his advice is right too. Reardon also suggests that we “find ways of helping parents become better teachers themselves. This might include strategies to support working families so that they can read to their children more often.”

Are there ways to help young parents from low-literacy backgrounds raise more highly literate kids? We have been asking that question for years. Reardon is asking it too.

Reardon asks one basic question in this lengthy piece. How can we address the widening academic gap between the society’s poorest and wealthiest kids?

The gap is widening, Reardon says—but it isn’t because low-income kids are doing worse in school. At one point, Reardon actually stated some basic facts—basic facts which almost never get stated in public.

Let’s dispel a few myths, Reardon said. At which point, he dispelled two:
REARDON: Before we can figure out what's happening here, let's dispel a few myths.

The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline. In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation's Report Card, have been rising—substantially in math and very slowly in reading—since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age or economic group.

The widening income disparity in academic achievement is not a result of widening racial gaps in achievement, either. The achievement gaps between blacks and whites, and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites have been narrowing slowly over the last two decades, trends that actually keep the yawning gap between higher- and lower-income students from getting even wider. If we look at the test scores of white students only, we find the same growing gap between high- and low-income children as we see in the population as a whole.
Good lord! Reardon revealed a few of the nation's best-kept secrets, stating facts which are rarely spoken in public. Average test scores have been rising, he said, citing the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP). And the achievement gaps between white, black and Hispanic students have been narrowing!

Who knew?

The nation’s “educational experts” and education writers rarely reveal these secrets. They rarely tell us that average test scores are actually rising. They rarely tell us that the “achievement gaps” between our three major student groups have been narrowing, not growing.

American citizens are rarely allowed to hear such facts. That’s why we were disappointed when Reardon stopped where he did.

Let’s look again at something he said. Then, let’s consider a basic point, a point even Reardon skipped past.

In the passage we’ve cited, Reardon made the following revelation. Trust us: Readers of the New York Times do not understand this fact:

“Average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been rising—substantially in math and very slowly in reading—since the 1970s.”

Say what? Average test scores have been rising on the NAEP, the so-called “gold standard” of educational testing? We’ll take an extremely safe guess: Most readers of the New York Times don’t know that.

Our public discourse is built around gloom and doom—and steady deception—when it comes to such matters. But doggone it! Even in that upbeat statement, Reardon failed to “disaggregate” test scores.

He was describing average test scores for the full student population. If he had added a few more words, he could have stated some very important facts:
REARDON, REVISED AND EXTENDED: Average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been rising—substantially in math and very slowly in reading—since the 1970s.

But those are just the average scores among the student population as a whole. If we consider black students alone, their test scores have risen by very substantial margins in both reading and math. The same is true for Hispanic students. But test scores by white students have risen too, thus maintaining the achievement gaps.
What will it take before the public is told the whole truth about our students’ test scores?

In fairness, Reardon goes beyond the cherry-picked gloom and doom which is normally served to the public. This constant diet of gloom and doom is a massive, ongoing act of disinformation.

Reardon moves beyond the standard gloom. But even he fails to tell the whole truth to the New York Times’ readers:

Scores by all three student groups—black, white and Hispanic—are in fact substantially up.

Reardon moved beyond the standard gloom and doom. He ended up making good suggestions. But even in 2300 words, he didn’t manage to tell the whole truth: Test scores by all three major groups are substantially up!

When will the public be told about this? Who will tell New York Times readers?

Concerning the apparent paradox here: Wait a minute, your lizard brain may be saying. If test scores by all three groups are way up, why are average scores in reading rising “very slowly?”

It’s easy to explain that point. We’ve explained it many times. There is no mystery to it.

But year after year, the New York Times has failed to explain this basic point. The paper has even failed to tell its readers the underlying facts:

All three student groups—blacks, whites and Hispanics—have recorded major score gains. If you read the New York Times, they just keep refusing to tell you that.

Year after year after year after year, this famous newspaper fails its readers. Reardon rolled back a bit of the gloom.

Why not tell the whole truth?


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  2. Kudos to Reardon for getting the NAEP statistics right. His recommendations look OK as far as they go, but I feel like more specific things are needed. More money and more training and more qualified teachers are always good. But, we already spend a lot of money on education. And, we have Head Start as an early childhood education. Even Sesame Street is supposed to be a source of early childhood education.

    What sorts of specifics do I have in mind? One is Bob's complaint that there aren't books that are both age-approprate and reading-level-appropriate for students who are far behind in grade level. Another is that much of the new math curriculum being developed is based on creating new things, rather than finding out what works best in teh classroom.

    A more difficult area would be changing the culture. In paricular, there's a part of black culture that views working hard at school negatively -- as 'acting white'. I don't know how to change that. Maybe promoting David Blackwell as an idol would help.

  3. Bob,

    I agree with your revision of Reardon. However, the disaggregation was implicit in what he said. Based on your quotes, Reardon made the points that:
    1) "The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping" and
    2) overall, "average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation's Report Card, have been rising"

    From those statements one should conclude that low income (and minority) achievement has been rising. (Yes, what he said would be consistent with them stagnating or falling slightly.)

    Again, I agree that Reardon was not being clear and that any good editor would have suggested your revisions. Or maybe the Times asked him to cut the detail out.

  4. Hold on. You say, "But test scores by white students have risen too, thus maintaining the achievement gaps."

    How can you say that? As I read the report cards, both black and Hispanic kids (4th and 8th graders, reading and math) have narrowed the overall gap compared to white kids considerably, narrowing from some point in the 90s by an average for the four different comparisons of about 25%. Why would that good news, qualified as it is, be characterized as "maintaining the achievement gaps"?

  5. This blog used to get more comments, and a third then weren't spam. I guess constantly insulting your readers ("lizard brain"), even to the point of misusing the term by your own definition, will turn a lot of them off. (Not instinctively recognizing the aggregate effect of failure to disaggregate ethnic groups with changing compositions has nothing to do with a "tribal" way of thinking. However, if you are wedded to your own narrative, it's perfectly understandable that you will strain to find it even when it's not there.)

  6. Could someone pull the thorn out of urban's paw, please?

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