The (journalist) kids are often not all right: Not long ago, we had three major news weeklies—Time, Newsweek and third-ranked U.S. News & World Report.
Not long ago, these three news weeklies were still a big deal. They aren’t a big deal today, of course. One no longer exists.
Still, it’s worth reviewing the way U.S. News reported the latest NAEP scores.
How is it that so few people have ever heard about the major gains in reading and math displayed in the nation's NAEP scores? Why is it that people are constantly hearing gloomy claims which fly in the face of these data?
In part, it’s because major news orgs churn out news reports like this. Below, you see the headlines and the opening paragraph of U.S. News' recent report about those new NAEP scores:
Report: High School Students Have Made No Progress in 40 YearsThe massive top headline is fashionably gloomy. Gloomily, it proclaims that high school students “have made no progress in 40 years.”
A national report says younger students have improved in reading and math, while high-school students lag behind
While today's elementary and middle school students are scoring higher in reading and mathematics than 40 years ago, and scores show that race and gender achievement gaps may be narrowing, there is a "disturbing" lack of improvement among the nation's high school students, according to a report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Things get worse after that.
In its first paragraph, U.S. News quotes someone describing a “disturbing” lack of improvement among high school students. The writer never explains who she was quoting, as you can see if you read her report. But here's a tip: She wasn’t quoting that “report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” the way her text plainly suggests.
Is it true? Has there been a disturbing lack of progress among high school students over the past forty years? We'd say that plainly isn’t the case, which brings us around to a basic question:
Who wrote this gloomy report for U.S. News, which was still a major publication until very recently? Answer:
The report was written by Allie Bidwell, a 23-year-old Cal grad. Bidwell may go on to be the nation’s greatest reporter. But she has no apparent background in educational issues.
The lack of expertise is apparent in her confusing but gloomy report.
In fairness, Bidwell didn’t assign herself to cover this important topic. But alas! Over and over, our big publications take this lazy, uncaring approach to educational reporting.
They assign some kid to cover the schools. And when it comes to such reporting, the kids are not all right.
In this case, it’s fairly clear that Bidwell was working off the June 27 AP report about the new NAEP scores. That report was written by Philip Elliott, a 2003 Ohio grad who also has no apparent background in educational issues.
Elliott only began covering public schools for the AP at the start of this year. Here too, when it comes to education reporting, the kids are not all right.
Neither Elliott nor Bidwell seems to have any idea how to analyze NAEP scores. In Bidwell’s case, this produced a bewildering report. With apologies for the repetition, this is the semi-puzzling way her report began:
BIDWELL (6/27/13): While today's elementary and middle school students are scoring higher in reading and mathematics than 40 years ago, and scores show that race and gender achievement gaps may be narrowing, there is a "disturbing" lack of improvement among the nation's high school students, according to a report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.Say what?
The NAEP's long-term trend assessment measures the basic reading and mathematics skills of 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds in American public and private schools every four years to show how students' performance has changed over time. In 2012, black and Hispanic students of all ages scored significantly higher in both mathematics and reading than students did in the early 1970s, when the assessments were first given. Gender gaps have also narrowed since the 1970s, with female students of all ages scoring better in math, and male students, who typically score lower in reading, narrowing the gap at age 9.
Question: If “black and Hispanic students of all ages are scoring significantly higher than students did in the early 1970s,” it what sense is there “a disturbing lack of improvement among the nation's high school students?”
The puzzle deepens when you look at the basic NAEP data and graphics and see that white 17-year-old students are scoring “significantly” higher in reading and math than in the 1970s, too. Click here, scroll to pages 18 and 40.
Question: If all three groups are scoring “significantly higher,” how can there be a disturbing lack of progress at the high school level? This puzzle is never solved in Bidwell’s report.
Simply put, she doesn’t understand the material. And there's no reason why she should.
None of this is Bidwell’s fault. Sadly, Bidwell’s youth and lack of expertise didn’t stop U.S. News from assigning her to cover this important report. And those factors didn’t stop U.S. News from blasting out a large, gloomy headline its writer can’t explain:
“Report: High School Students Have Made No Progress in 40 Years.”
If you know how to read NAEP data, that headline is false and grossly misleading. That said, this is the way our big news orgs have covered the public schools for many years now.
They'll send some kid to tackle the task. Any outcome is A-OK, as long as it's gloomy enough.
Bottom line: Our big news orgs don’t care about schools, or about the children inside them. The Associated Press and U.S. News helped prove that point last month.
Brian cadged from the AP too: Brian Williams still looks very good. But Brian is no longer a kid.
So what the heck is his excuse? For our previous report, just click here.