DAZED MEETS CONFUSED: Uncaring, incompetent!

FRIDAY, JULY 5, 2013

Part 4—The AP utterly fails: For our money, the Washington Post was basically right about the latest NAEP scores.

According to reporter Lyndsey Layton, the new data “paint a picture of steady student achievement that contradicts the popular notion that U.S. educational progress has stalled.”

"When you break out the data over the long term and ask who is improving, the answer is everyone,” an educational expert was quoted saying. For our money, Layton pretty much got it right.

Indeed, we would say that Layton understated her case in certain ways. Once you disaggregate NAEP scores, tremendous score gains have been achieved “over the long term”—over the past forty years.

The score gains are very large all through the NAEP report. This contradicts the “popular notion” which actually dominates our discourse—the notion that our schools have been ruined by our fiendish public school teachers with their infernal unions.

Very large score gains are plain to see all through the basic NAEP data. And despite the suggestion in Layton’s report, that has been true for many years.

In truth, there is nothing especially new about these latest NAEP scores. How then has that “popular notion” been able to take hold of our discourse? Why do so few people, even now, know about those very large score gains?

Why have very few people ever heard about the very large score gains achieved, for example, by black kids? What keeps this apparent “good news” story away from public view?

In part, the answer is found in the massive indifference of the American “press corps.” Consider the widespread lack of reporting about these latest scores.

Quite correctly, every newspaper calls the NAEP the “gold standard” of educational testing. (Also: “America’s report card.”) Every newspaper swears by NAEP data, when those data can be used to present gloomy conclusions.

But this recent report by the NAEP came and went with barely a whisper—and new data from this study appear only every four years. As best we can tell, this is the state of massive indifference which greeted these new results:

Among network news programs, only NBC Nightly News mentioned the new report. NBC devoted 68 words to the topic. CBS, ABC and PBS took a pass.

We find no sign that the new report was mentioned anywhere on cable. Last night, CNN and MSNBC crowded their air with thrilling reports about the nation’s serial killers. Major score gains by black children don’t float “cable news” boats.

As best we can tell, the New York Times has never mentioned the new report. Given the way the Times reports on public schools, that may be a small blessing.

We find no sign that NPR has mentioned the new report. We find no sign that Salon has produced any original reporting or commentary. Slate gave the new report three paragraphs, all by Matt Yglesias, in work so lazy, so awful, so uninformed that Slate should apologize to its readers and explain why such an upper-class slacker is still employed at the site.

More on that pitiful effort tomorrow. For today, we’ll only say this: The mainstream press corps is deeply indifferent to topics of this type. Plainly, this nation’s black children are boring, except when they are shot and killed in ways which make people mad.

The press corps simply doesn’t care about the nation’s children. And, perhaps as a result, the press corps spills with technical incompetence when it does try to report.

Consider the AP’s report on this topic—a piece which plainly was the basis for NBC’s indolent, gloomy report. Rather plainly, some slacker at NBC News paraphrased the AP’s report, then handed the 68 words thus produced to Brian Williams for recitation.

NBC went to school on the AP report—and the AP’s report was a mess.

The report was written by Philip Elliott, a 2003 college graduate and a long-time White House reporter. Elliott seems to have gone on the education beat at the start of this year.

Elliott doesn’t seem to have a background in education. That isn’t his fault, of course. But looking through his recent report, we’d have to say that his lack of background is clear from the headline on down.

Here’s how the AP report began. Quite plainly, NBC News used this report to craft its 68 words:
ELLIOTT (6/27/13): High school seniors fare no better than in 1970s

Students preparing to leave high school are faring no better in reading or math than their peers four decades ago, the government said Thursday. Officials attributed the bleak finding on more lower-performing students staying in school rather than dropping out.

The news was brighter for younger students and for blacks and Hispanics, who had the greatest gain in reading and math scores since the 1970s, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly referred to as the Nation's Report Card.

"In some ways, the findings are full of hope. Today's children ages 9 and 13 are scoring better overall than students at those ages in the early `70s," said Brent Houston, principal of the Shawnee Middle School in Oklahoma and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers the tests.

But he also noted challenges for older students.

"There is a disturbing lack of improvement among 17-year-olds. Since the early 1970s, the average scores of 17-year-olds in both reading and mathematics have remained stagnant," he said.
Elliott’s technical incompetence is evident in his first paragraph, in which he features a “bleak finding” while making at least one factual error. Question:

If the unchanged overall score among 17-year-old students is caused by the fact that fewer students are dropping out, in what sense does it represent a “bleak finding?”

Later in his report, Elliott quotes a NAEP official discussing the large reduction in the drop-our rate among certain groups (see below). But if overall scores remain unchanged despite the infusion of many more low-achieving students, why should that be regarded as a problem?

Sorry. Because of the change in drop-out rates, it’s very hard to construct valid comparisons at the 17-year-old level. You’re comparing a much more selective group of students in the past to a much wider population today. In effect, you're forced to make apples-to-oranges comparisons.

This was explained to Elliott, but there's little sign that he understood. Seeing the unchanged aggregate score among 17-year-old students, he describes the situation as “bleak”—and he chose to use this alleged “bleak finding” to headline his report.

That day, some overpaid slacker at NBC News rewrote what Elliott said. He or she crafted 68 words. Once he was finished in makeup and hair, Brian Williams read those words, which swapped “grim” for “bleak:”
WILLIAMS (6/27/13): A grim report card out tonight on our nation’s high school seniors. It’s from the government. The headline is this: They’re leaving high school no better in reading or math than students in the 1970s, decades ago. Certain subgroups, like younger students, blacks and Hispanics, have upped their grades. But apparently, more lower-performing kids are staying in school now, and that brings down the overall graduation grade average.
Plainly, some NBC staffer paraphrased Elliott, then handed this clump of rearranged words to Williams. Almost surely, that staffer wasn’t technically competent. But then, neither was the AP reporter whose work was being redone.

News flash, stated again: Because of the change in drop-out rates, it’s hard to construct valid comparisons over time at the 17-year-old level! The steady decline in the drop-out rate is, in theory, a very good thing. But it keeps introducing large numbers of lower-scoring students into the pool of students who get tested.

Under this circumstance, it could be regarded as a good sign when the overall score is unchanged. But Elliott didn’t understand that. Later, some hack at NBC simply rewrote what he said.

Looking at what Elliott wrote, we see his lack of expertise. That said, a second question arises, involving the member of the National Assessment Governing Board around whom Elliott built his report.

Who the Sam Hill is Brent Houston and why is he saying these things? The first question can be answered, at least to a point. According to Elliott, Houston is the principal of a middle school in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

He also is a technical bozo, if Elliott is quoting him fairly. Houston says it’s “disturbing” to see the overall score stay the same among 17-year-old students.

If you understand the role played by the drop-out rate, it shouldn’t be “disturbing” at all. And the fact that the overall score stayed the same isn’t “bleak” or “grim.”

Why in the world is the principal of a small middle school serving as the AP’s dominant technical expert? Answer: Because your press corps is technically incompetent. Because your press corps doesn’t care about the lives of black kids.

Meanwhile, Elliott shows little understanding of the extremely basic practice known as “disaggregation.” Even with the large change in drop-out rates, the average scores of black 17-year-old students have risen by roughly two academic years in reading and math in the forty-year period under review, as we noted earlier this week.

The same is true of the average scores attained by Hispanic 17-year-old students, despite the infusion of many low-scoring students thanks to the change in the drop-out rate.

Even there, the size of the gains is presumably being obscured by the change on the drop-out rate. But those score gains are part of the very good news found all through the NAEP report—the good news the Washington Post was finally willing to acknowledge.

That said, gaze on the instincts of the unskilled:

Elliott didn’t seem to understand the basics about the scores of 17-year-old students. He showed no sign of understanding the difficulties involved in interpreting these scores.

Gack! Those are the most problematic data in the whole NAEP report! Inevitably, Elliott chose to focus on those very scores, using them to announce that this was a “bleak,” “disturbing” report.

The AP is our most famous news service. Its report was technically incompetent. Other news orgs skipped this NAEP report.

Let’s thank God for small favors.

Tomorrow: The pseudo-liberal world takes a pass. Some people you ought to despise.

The size of the change in those drop-out rates: For unknown reasons, Elliott decided to build his report around the technical observations of a middle-school principal.

He also spoke with higher-ranking people who seem to understand the technical lay of the land. Later in his report, he quotes a NCES official discussing the change in those drop-out rates.

To appearances, that expert tried to help Elliott understand. But what you see here is just flat-out hopeless:
ELLIOTT: Officials suggest the results for 17-year-old students reflect fewer low-performing students dropping out.

For instance, Hispanic students had a 32 percent dropout rate in 1990 and that number fell to 15 percent in 2010, said Peggy Carr, an associate commissioner with the National Center for Education Statistics.

"These students are generally scoring at the lower end of the distribution but it's a good thing that they're staying in schools," Carr said.

Even so, they're still not learning more despite increased education spending.
Just in that twenty-year period, an additional seventeen percent of Hispanic students chose to stay in school and thereby took part in the testing. Carr tried to help Elliott see how they would tend to drive down overall scores.

Hopeless! “Even so, they're still not learning more,” Elliott instantly said, failing to say who “they” are—and obscuring the way this statistical conundrum works.

(Duh. The counterparts to those 17 percent weren't tested in the past. There is no way to know if “they” are learning more, if that's who he meant by “they.”)

Elliott shouldn’t have been assigned to do this report. He has no background in education. Plainly, he’s technically incompetent.

But this is the way your “press corps” works, especially concerning topics they don’t care about. And you know what happened next:

At NBC News, some overpaid slacker simply rewrote what Elliott said. Brian was placed before the prompter.

While there, he read 68 words.


  1. NPR *did* mention the report, and accurately no less! No link that I can find, but I was flabbergasted to hear it discussed over my car radio the other day.


  2. I actually think it's editorializing by the reporter.
    If one listens to these recitations closely, and I do, at this point I'm ready for the infuriating, boring frame, they ALWAYS go to "spending".
    "Despite increased spending.."
    I don't know, but I would guess it costs a bit more to keep potentially truant/ drop out students in high school rather than just sending them out on the streets.
    Is that where the increased spending is going?
    I don't know.
    Thanks again for these pieces, Mr. Somerby.

  3. Agreed, these posts are important. Arguably, much more important than posts about Trayvon Martin.