VISIONS OF PISA: Weingarten, Ravitch lose the NAEP!


Part 4—The liberal world’s rolling incompetence: The misstatements tend to be general when you read Diane Ravitch, who tends to be excessively partisan in support of whichever side she is currently on.

We assume that Ravitch is well intentioned. In certain ways, her new book, Reign of Error, is very useful, at least theoretically.

But Ravitch tends to overstate toward the goal of winning each partisan point. As an example, let’s consider something she said in a post this Tuesday.

The post was aimed at the D.C. schools, one of her favorite targets. She started with a statement which is semi-unknowable in principle, apparently false in fact:
RAVITCH (12/10/13): Despite its recent gains on the 2013 NAEP, the District of Columbia is not a national model.

It remains the lowest performing urban district in the nation.
The post goes on from there, making various points about the D.C. schools. But why would Ravitch make the highlighted claim?

Does D.C. “remain the lowest performing urban district in the nation,” even after its ballyhooed score gains on the 2013 NAEP? Almost surely, it does not. Here’s a bit of background:

In one respect, the answer to that question is semi-unknowable. At present, the NAEP only reports stand-alone scores for about twenty urban districts. There are no such scores for dozens of the nation’s cities, including ten of the twenty biggest.

Full data for those twenty urban districts on the 2013 NAEP are not available yet. (D.C.’s scores have been released because it’s classified as a “state” for certain purposes.)

That said, it’s hard to believe that D.C. is the lowest performing urban district.

Because of its many charter schools; because it’s classified as both a city and as a “state,” with attendant confusion; D.C.’s data can be sliced and diced in many ways. But even on the 2011 NAEP, it’s hard to see how someone could say that D.C. was the lowest performing of the NAEP’s twenty urban districts. (Detroit’s scores were especially horrible.)

Given D.C.’s score gains in 2013, it becomes even less likely that it could be the lowest performing urban district.

Why did Ravitch say what she did? We have no idea, though it helps her drive some favorite points about D.C.’s pursuit of standard “reforms,” whose merits she was overstating just a few years ago.

With Ravitch, this tends to be what you get. That said, it isn’t just Ravitch.

Quite a few liberals have said odd things about the 2012 PISA scores, which were released last week. For our money, it was amazingly strange when Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT, said this in an instant press release:
WEINGARTEN (12/3/13): Today's PISA results drive home what has become abundantly clear: While the intentions may have been good, a decade of top-down, test-based schooling created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—focused on hyper-testing students, sanctioning teachers and closing schools—has failed to improve the quality of American public education. Sadly, our nation has ignored the lessons from the high-performing nations. These countries deeply respect public education, work to ensure that teachers are well-prepared and well-supported, and provide students not just with standards but with tools to meet them—such as ensuring a robust curriculum, addressing equity issues so children with the most needs get the most resources, and increasing parental involvement. None of the top-tier countries, nor any of those that have made great leaps in student performance, like Poland and Germany, has a fixation on testing like the United States does.
Whatever Weingarten may think of “top-down, test-based schooling,” her press release gives the impression that there has been no progress in American schools over the past decade.

From someone who represents the nation’s demonized teachers, that is a very strange post.

Have American schools “failed to improve” in the past decade? That isn’t what Weingarten explicitly said after her words are carefully parsed. But we’d say that impression is clearly conveyed by that remarkable post.

Have American schools “failed to improve?” That’s true if you only consider the PISA; if you assume its results can be trusted; and if you don’t disaggregate. And that’s what our new national cult—the cult of the PISA—wants us all to do!

The cult of the PISA worships two gods; their names are Andreas and PISA. As a result, this jealous new cult wants us to talk about scores from the PISA alone.

In her statement, Weingarten bowed to the wishes of this cult. But so did Ravitch, in her own post about the PISA scores.

As we noted yesterday, Ravitch drew four lessons at the end of her 1400-word post, My View of the PISA Scores. This was her very first lesson:
RAVITCH (12/3/13): From my vantage point as a historian, here is my takeaway from the PISA scores:

Lesson 1: If they mean anything at all, the PISA scores show the failure of the past dozen years of public policy in the United States. The billions invested in testing, test prep, and accountability have not raised test scores or our nation’s relative standing on the league tables. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores.
That statement is simply astounding. In it, Ravitch seems to follow the edicts of the new cult of the PISA.

You can parse those words with care, as with Weingarten's statement. But those words convey a plain impression, just as Weingarten did.

Those words convey the plain impression that U.S. test scores have not improved in the past dozen years. And that claim is perfectly true—but only if you accept the edicts of the new PISA cult.

It’s true! There have been no gains in American scores—if you only consult the PISA, if you don’t disaggregate.

But what if you look at other tests, tests which may be more reliable than the somewhat unconventional PISA? What if you look at the TIMSS? What if you look at the NAEP?

On the NAEP, there have been tremendous score gains over the past dozen years. Her, you see one example:
Average NAEP scores, Grade 8 math, black students
2000: 243
2013: 263
By normal rules of interpretation, that looks like a very large gain. Bowing low to the cult of the PISA, Weingarten and Ravitch act as if those score gains don’t exist.

Since the rest of the “liberal” world doesn’t give a flying fig about what happens to American black kids, this ridiculous conduct by these “intellectual leaders” goes unnoticed, unremarked, unexplored, undiscussed. Because Ravitch is so influential, her ratification of the new cult spreads through the liberal world.

We have no earthly idea why Weingarten says the things she does. But please understand: to her credit, Diane Ravitch knows all about the NAEP!

In Chapter 5 of her new book, Reign of Error, Ravitch discusses the NAEP in detail, noting that she sat on its board of governors for seven years. (She was appointed by President Clinton.)

She goes on and on, sometimes overstating, about the primacy of the NAEP. This is the way the chapter begins:
RAVITCH (page 44): Critics have complained for many years that American students are not learning as much as they used to or that academic performance is flat. But neither of these complaints is accurate.

We have only one authoritative measure of academic performance over time, and that is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP (pronounced “nape”).
“NAEP is central to any discussion of whether American students and the public schools they attend are doing well or badly,” she writes on page 45. Despite the usual puzzling blunders and the standard balls of confusion, she goes on to offer a detailed account of the major score gains on the NAEP, including score gains which occurred between 2000 and 2011 (see page 45).

It’s hard to know how we get from that detailed chapter to Ravitch’s blog post last week, in which she seemed to endorse the idea that no improvement has been recorded in the past dozen years. “No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores,” an angry Ravitch wrote.

Carefully parsed, that claim may be true. But it conveys a plain impression, and Ravitch never mentions the NAEP or the TIMSS in her lengthy post.

Why did Ravitch write that unfortunate post about the new PISA scores? We’ll offer two possible guesses:

First, Ravitch is one of the most disorganized thinkers we’ve ever encountered in print. She constantly contradicts herself. (Compare her praise for the NAEP on page 263 of her book to her apparent wholesale condemnation of the NAEP exactly four paragraphs later.)

Second, she may have been unable to resist a partisan urge in last week's post—the urge to overstate against “testing, test prep, and accountability,” and against the two programs (No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top) which have embodied those approaches. When a partisan claim is there to be made, Ravitch rarely misses the chance to overstate it.

Whatever! Whatever her intentions may have been, Ravitch gave the impression in last week’s post that there has been no recent improvement. She never even mentioned the NAEP, or the many NAEP scores gains she details in her book.

Last week, it became quite clear that we have a new cult in this country.

That new cult is the cult of the PISA. Its adepts want you to do these things:

They want you to consult the PISA, and nothing else, when you assess academic performance.

They don’t want you to disaggregate scores. They want you to voice their gloomy conclusions about the lack of progress in our ratty schools, thanks to our ratty teachers.

This is exactly what Ravitch did in her peculiar post. Across the land, that gloomy impression spreads through the liberal world.

What have black kids ever done to have this unfaithful servant as their top liberal advocate? On the NAEP, they recorded that 20-point gain in math.

All across the United States, we liberals refuse to discuss it.

Tomorrow: How to keep pimping a comparison known to be bogus

A further note on PISA scores: For ourselves, we don’t have enormous confidence in the PISA.

That said, we’d like to see solid reporting about the different impressions one might gain from American scores on the PISA as opposed to American scores on the NAEP and the TIMSS.

Still and all, there have been some American gains on the PISA, especially after disaggregation. For example, here are the gains in science scores since 2006 (data for 2000 and 2003 are not available):
Average scores by American students, PISA science, 2006 versus 2012
White students: 523/528
Black students: 409/439
Hispanic students: 439/462
Asian-American students: 499/546
All American students: 489/497
According to Amanda Ripley, 39 points is roughly comparable to one academic year on the PISA scale. On that basis, some of those score gains look fairly substantial, if you trust PISA samples.

We don’t have huge confidence in the PISA, but we’d like to see good solid reporting. Given the way our “press corps” works, that will of course never happen.

Instead, we’ll get what we got last week—the rise of our latest cult. Never mention those scores from the NAEP, its powerful adepts will tell us.


  1. "if they mean anything at all" -- is a qualification in my book.

  2. A question, in terms of grade level how are scores to be interpreted? Support Massachusetts scores are 10 points higher than Florida scores, how much ahead in schools months or years are Mass students?

    1. According to Amanda Ripley, 39 points is roughly comparable to one academic year on the PISA scale....

      [ Ah, I understand. ]

  3. It bothers me that these people who are purportedly trying to improve public education cannot do so without denigrating teachers (and kids). The long term goals of strengthening the teaching pool by attracting people to the profession, and of restoring higher esteem for teaching as a profession cannot be met if teachers are not rewarded for the good work they are currently doing. Teachers get discouraged when their best efforts are ignored and no one cares whether they do a good or bad job. Yes, parents and sometimes kids give positive feedback, but that will have little effect on those thinking about becoming teachers. Why would they want to when the public does not appreciate what they do?

  4. There is an all out war going on against the real public schools, their teachers and their unions. The billionaire boys' club claims that our schools are failing because of lousy unionized teachers who have cushy pensions and health benefits. So the solution, according to the so called reform crowd is privatizing the schools, killing off the unions, getting rid of tenure, seniority, LIFO (last in first out) and eliminating defined benefit pensions. The Rheeformers want to close supposedly failing schools and replace them with charter schools and vouchers. The reform crowd constantly demean, demonize and swift boat district public schools, their teachers and especially their unions. This anti union propaganda goes on 24/7 at full volume. The teachers love Diane Ravitch because she is one of the very few high profile people fighting for public schools and their teachers. She's not a billionaire and she's not making billions from her advocacy though she is making money from her books. But her goal or aim is not to make money but to advocate for our public schools, she is beloved for that. She has put herself on the line and she gets regularly crucified by the reform crowd.

    1. But how is it fighting for teachers when she claims there has been little progress in test scores over the past decade? That furthers the view that teachers are in cushy jobs not doing their work properly. Does she not see the implications of her attack on test scores?

      If she argues they have gone up, she supports NCLB. If she argues they have not, she undermines the work of teachers (especially since they have gone up). Does her statement mean she has chosen to attack NCLB over supporting teachers and kids? I think that is what Bob is suggesting when he says she jumps on these partisan issues too heavily. In this case, she has distorted truth to do so and harms the image of teachers, in my opinion.

      She may present herself as an advocate of teachers, but is she really one? Do we need friends who denigrate us, in addition to enemies who do so?

    2. For better or for worse, she is not an activist but a professional historian who takes the long view. She does not denigrate teachers' unions, far from it. On the other hand, however, she appears to think her words will have more impact if she can maintain good relations with her academic colleagues.

    3. I didn't say she denigrated unions. I said that by ignoring the test score gains, she denigrates the work of teachers whose effectiveness has helped produce those gains. In this post, the person similarly denigrating the work of teachers was a union leader. As I said, with friends like these, who needs enemies?

    4. Given Somerby's animus toward Ravitch--something he's quite properly done little to hide--it's a good idea to read this linked-to post with care. In the present case, you'll find that Ravitch is (1) claiming that the scores did not increase under the Rhee regime, and (2) that some of them have begun to go up after Mayor Gray instituted universal pre-K. There is nothing in this Ravitch post that contradicts Somerby's claim that test scores have indeed gone up between 2000 and 2013. Sometimes 'we liberals' 'don't read too good.'

      Further, if you read the comments to this Ravitch post, you'll find that what Giuseppe at 1:40 pm appears to be true. You'll also find that their quality tends to rather high for a blog.

      Finally, if you look beyond this post to others at her blog, you'll find that she and her readers are interested in many things educational besides the accurate interpretation of test scores. Perhaps Somerby, too, will one day say something about Arne Duncan and Race To The Top, or about the failure of the press to report well on the widespread efforts of wealthy 'reformers' to privatize public schools, take over school boards, etc.

    5. The linked to Ravitch post says: "We are doing about the same now on PISA as we have done for the past half century." That contradicts Somerby's claim that test scores have indeed gone up. Ravitch is no doubt talking about our relative standing in the world, but then she talks about Florida's specific scores so her lack of clarity, Somerby's other criticism, is evident. Nor will I judge a blog by its comments.

      Somerby has said many things about the way the press has reported the school reform movement. If the press doesn't talk about Arne Duncan, Somerby probably will not either, since his focus is the media. Long time readers of this blog know this.

    6. Addendum: And perhaps Somerby will one day begin to comment at the Diane Ravitch blog, thereby entering into the lively give-and-take there. That would be good for Ravitch's readers and, I suspect, very good for Somerby himself.

    7. The press does talk about Arne Duncan and his policies and statements, frequently, and their reports have been characteristically superficial and tendentious. Perhaps Anonymous at 3:05 pm means that, with a couple of notable exceptions (one quite recent) there has been little controversy about his statements in the mainstream press.

    8. Somerby doesn't write posts about failed policy or current events. He writes posts about media screw ups. If they reported him in a way that provided Somerby with something to say, he probably said it. He has written about Duncan before (don't ask me when). This is a blog with an idiosyncratic and narrow focus. Somerby can write about whatever he wants, so either read him or don't. Some of us find his views thought provoking and enjoy them.

  5. Somerby's attitude is hard to understand.

    Teachers need more friends it is true, and Ravitch is their friend.

    For my part, I think when the billionaires and their statistician friends (mostly with math and engineering backgrounds) to wage war against teachers, they made a huge mistake. Contrary to what these mathematical "best and brightests" seem to think, teachers are a well educated and articulate group who have the loyal gratitude of millions of parents who know very well what teachers are up against, because they entrust their children to them every day.

    Thus, it is not unions that makes the teaching profession a force to be reckoned with, as the bean counters mistakenly think, but the intrinsic qualities that are inseparable from their calling. It is like attacking the tiger in her den.

    1. These billionaires are largely in the computer industry or are invested in education-related enterprises. They want to see education use their products. They see dollar signs -- I doubt they have anything against teachers otherwise. Studies show repeatedly that you cannot take the human element out of education -- teachers know this and resist automated approaches (not tools to enhance the classroom). That is why they have been targeted. If teachers are painted as ineffective, their concerns can be more easily dismissed. What has Ravitch contributed to that debate?

  6. Ravitch has called education "reform" a hoax, which is putting it kindly.

  7. The problem here is that Somerby never repeats Ravitch's main criticism of the testing regime, for the simple reason that it would blow his oft-repeated number citations to hell.

    It's Ravitch's repeated contention that there scores are meaningless; they don't measure what's important and are not predictive of economic prosperity, cultural achievements or industrial innovation. In that light, she sees no benefits to the "No Child Left Behind" approach, and all the testing which goes with it. It's in *that* context that she dimisses the PISA scores as more of the same.

    In other words, Gates, Rhee et al. are wrong, but not for the reasons Somerby trumpets. This presents a certain difficulty for the blogger of this site.

  8. Vragen van Edusceptic bij geloofwaardigheid van Pasi Sahlbergs Finnish lessons. Sahlberg is al een paar jaar Fins onderwijsambassadeur (= propagandist van Fins onderwijsparadijs).

    Op de onderwijsblog van prof. em. Diane Ravitch reageert 'Eduscpetic’ op de voortdurende loftuitingen van Ravitch aan het adres van Sahlberg en de door Pasi gepropageerde onderwijsvisie. De Amerikaanse prof. Ravitch behoort tot de fanclub van Pasi Sahlberg – samen met prof. Andy Hargreaves. Deze drie mensen drukken in hun tweets bijna dagelijks hun onderlinge bewondering voor elkaar uit. Ravitch gebruikt (misbruikt?) Sahlberg & 'onderwijsparadijs Finland' ook voor haar kritiek op het onderwijsbeleid in de VS.

    Edusceptic reageert vandaag op een bijdrage op de blog van Ravitch: Pasi Sahlberg Explains Finnish Philosophy of Education to Rhode Island Policymakers

    1.Kritiek van eduskeptic

    NOT MANY FINNS agree with Mr. Sahlberg’s interpretations. Mr. Sahlberg please identify the Finnish body that authorized you to speak about national education system. For such high-level representation, some guarantees of accuracy are required.

    2.Reply diane ravitch

    I don’t think Pasi Sahlberg needs to get government approval to describe Finnish education. Did he get government approval to write a book about Finnish education. I write about U.S. education and I don’t have government approval. That is called censorship.

    3. Verdere kritiek van eduskeptic

    Some guys use such enticing language about a favorite topic that we tend to believe them instinctively. Then we form opinions on the basis of what they say. Some of the people that are currently ruining US education sound just as attractive as Mr. Sahlberg when they praise TFA.

    Finland is not a country that many people know, so the influence of one photogenic spokesman has had quite an effect. Please consider asking:
    -Which references does Mr. Sahlberg cite for the description of the Finnish system, its policies and labor effects? -Which data does he use other than international tests? -In which peer-reviewed journals has he published about these topics? -What do credible academics (or even Finnish embassy staff) think of his pronouncements regarding their system?-How credible is this work in Finland? Which entities finance his travels around the world?

    Finland is a very minor issue in this debate of course. The centerpoint is willingness to believe people who sound very confident about issues people know very little. This how industrialists who masquerade as philanthropists manage to run the US education system.

    School systems of any country are like the elephant that blind people are trying to describe. ANY conclusions are possible, and reams of books are written on this basis. Similarly admiring conclusions have been written about the US system. And if you read them, you would not recognize the country.

    The issue of course is not Finland. It is the speakers, financiers, and your conclusions after hearing them. That’s because nothing is left to chance in the big privatization game. If you dig a bit into the financing sources, you may be surprised.