Guess who lacks minimal skills: Be careful what you ask for!
In late July, the DC schools announced the largest score gains in five years on its annual “statewide” tests. Emma Brown reported the ballyhooed gains in the Washington Post.
Heroically, we started our review of her report like this: “Everything we know about Emma Brown is good.” But we noted an obvious problem with her report:
Were this year’s system-wide tests “equivalent” to last year’s system-wide tests? That is, were the two sets of tests equally difficult? Unless you know that this is true, it doesn’t matter—it doesn’t mean squat—if passing rates go up!
Especially given other events unfolding around the nation, that was a blindingly obvious question. But in real time, Brown didn’t ask.
But always be careful what you ask for! Yesterday, Brown explored that very question in one of the most incoherent news reports we’ve ever seen in print.
Her report was very long, and it was very high-profile. Its 38 paragraphs burned 1996 words. It was the featured report on page one of the Post’s Sunday Metro section.
The report was long and high-profile. It was also incoherent. This is the way Brown began. We include the Post’s main headline:
BROWN (9/22/13): Scoring decision aided math gains“Scoring decision aided math gains,” the principal headline said.
The four-point gains D.C. public school students achieved citywide on the most recent annual math and reading tests were acclaimed as historic, as more evidence that the city's approach to improving schools is working.
But the math gains officials reported were the result of a quiet decision to score the tests in a way that yielded higher scores even though D.C. students got far fewer math questions correct than in the year before.
That didn’t sound very good. But neither did the start of Brown’s report.
According to Brown, this year’s tests were scored “in a way that yielded higher scores even though D.C. students got far fewer math questions correct than in the year before.” Plainly, it sounded like something was wrong with the way these tests were handled.
But as she continued, Brown got murky quite fast. It was no longer clear if something was wrong. Frankly, we now had little idea what Brown was talking about:
BROWN (continuing directly): The decision was made after D.C. teachers recommended a new grading scale—which would have held students to higher standards on tougher math tests—and after officials reviewed projections that the new scale would result in a significant decline in math proficiency rates.It now sounds like students may have been held to “a level of difficulty similar to previous years,” which is pretty much what you might want to do. But good lord! The jumble of confusion Brown has introduced!
Instead, city officials chose to discard the new grading approach and hold students to a level of difficulty similar to previous years', according to city officials as well as e-mails and documents obtained by The Washington Post.
We pretty much know what a “tougher math test” is. We’re not real sure we know what “a new grading scale” on a tougher test is—a new grading scale which would “hold students to higher standards” on those tougher tests.
Nor do we feel we know what happened even after several forced marches through Brown’s 2000 words. In our view, the piece is confusing from its start right on to its finish.
We’ve worked with these topics for forty years, but we feel heavily bollixed by what we have read. In our view, this is a tremendously confused and confusing news report.
Enter this forest ye who dare! We have struggled on two separate days with Brown’s lengthy, jumbled report. Our basic conclusion would be this:
Brown and her editor aren’t minimally competent in this subject area.
Brown graduated from Stanford in 2000. After teaching seventh grade in Juneau, she got a master’s degree in journalism from Berkeley in 2009.
That said, her hopelessly jumbled report took us back many years. Long ago, we were struck by the lack of technical competence on the part of many education reporters, even those at high-profile news orgs.
Everything else we know about Brown is still good. That said, the Washington Post is a major newspaper. Its education reporter, and her unnamed editor, seem to lack even minimal skills.
This is very much the way our society works.
The basic question under review: Did D.C. students show improvement on last year's system-wide tests?
After struggling with this report, we have no earthly idea. That may be the fault of the D.C. schools. It's clearly the fault of the Post.