Journalistic coverage of public schools!

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6, 2019

The Times covers Texas state tests:
According to the New York Times, Kristen Hernandez, 9 years old, is a delightful fourth-grader in Mesquite, Texas, a "working-class suburb" of Dallas.

With that in mind, we'll ask you to imagine two states of affairs:

First, imagine that a dozen people were asked to measure Kristen's height or weight. We're talking about a pair of fairly straightforward tasks. Presumably, most of the people would report pretty much the same results.

Now, imagine a different sort of assignment. Suppose we asked a dozen people to assess Kristen's "reading level."

We're now talking about a fairly nebulous concept. In part for that reason, we don't have a single, simple, straightforward way to measure a child's "reading level."

Weight is easy; "reading level" is hard. Surely everyone can understand that. There's nothing confusing about this matter—unless you're reading the New York Times.

Yesterday, the Times ran a 1627-word report about Kristen Hernandez's reading level. Accompanied by four photographs, the lengthy report consumed the entire first page of yesterday's hard-copy "National" section.

In essence, the Times report came down to this:

On one measure of Kristen's reading achievement last spring, she was rated as merely "approaches grade level." On some poorly explained second measure, her reading achievement was rated as being "on grade level."

Let's repeat. One measure said Kristen was on grade level. A second measure said she merely approached grade level.

We can think of no conceivable reason to be surprised or discombobulated by this wholly unremarkable state of affairs. That said, the Times built a lengthy report around the idea that those dueling assessments represent a perplexing problem. Along the way, the Times even managed to be surprised by this:
GOLDSTEIN AND FERNANDEZ (3/5/19): Just a few questions on the test can make a big difference for a student. One of Kristen's schoolmates, Jacob Weempe, missed the cutoff between ''approaches grade level'' and ''meets standards'' by a single question. When his mother, Joanne Nagahiro, a medical assistant, found out his score, she signed him up for private tutoring. It cost $200 per month and, along with Saturday classes at the school, took up much of Jacob's weekend for a time.
If Jacob had answered one more question correctly, he would have been rated as "meets standards." But as it was, he was rated only as "approaches standards."

Almost surely, the fact that he missed the cutoff by one answer is a matter of complete and total insignificance. Apparently, no one told his mother this. Then too, the New York Times seemed to think that this pseudo-conundrum represents a problem with the Texas state tests. Just to be honest, it almost surely doesn't, except to the extent that people fail to understand and explain the inevitable lack of precision in measures of this type.

According to the Times report, "there are four categories of performance" on the Texas state tests. The lowest category is ''did not meet grade level,'' which means the student in question failed the test.

Our view? Yesterday's full-page report "did not meet basic journalistic proficiency level." But so it goes, again and again, when the Times makes one of its periodic attempts to report on the public schools.

Subscribers believe that the New York Times is a very smart newspaper. The paper's branding pushes that shaky idea.

Yesterday's report was basically sad. We're simply trying to tell you the truth about the current state of the culture at its highest journalistic end.

Final question, for extra credit:

Just how sharp are we "rational animals?" We'll let you decide!

5 comments:

  1. "Suppose we asked a dozen people to assess Kristen's "reading level.""

    Bob, but we don't ask a dozen people. There's a test for that. And if they have several tests assessing the same thing, surely it's a problem?

    What exactly are you so pissed off about?

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  2. It won't hurt Jacob to have some extra help with reading in the early grade levels. A stronger foundation than borderline will translate into better understanding of his other subjects when they are conveyed in written language. Building confidence and getting practice will help him like reading more and he will then do it more and get better at it on his own. So I just don't see this as a tragedy.

    All measure have cutoffs when they are dividing things into categories. Of course the boundaries are actually fuzzy (except for rare things such as mathematical sets). Does Somerby know for a fact that Jacob's teacher didn't tell his parents not to worry about his reading, and the parents ignored that advice, hoping their child might excel in reading instead of just being on target? That reaction is more typical of middle class parenting. Further, kids tend to have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to a complex skill like reading. Maybe some kids need to emphasize phonic sounding out of new wounds whereas other need to focus on comprehension. A teacher usually communicates that info during a parent-teacher meeting, and doesn't leave it up to a test score to tell parents how to help their kids improve.

    But that is real life and has nothing to do with beating up on journalists. Journalists however understand that just a few questions on the SAT or ACT make the difference between getting in or being left out of Stanford or Harvard or the nearest State College. That's why high school kids take the SAT multiple times. Because the point of such tests isn't to measure reading but to sort kids into categories: accepted, not accepted, waitlisted. The kids know that and so perhaps does the NY Times.

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  3. My oldest daughter was reading at a third grade level in kindergarten (she is a college English professor now) and excelled in all her classes my youngest daughter struggled with math. After two years of me helping with her homework, plus summer school and private tutors she still almost failed algebra. Worse our state requires a proctored test (given on a computer) to get a highschool deploma. She could not pass the test even though she was going to be an honor graduate if she could pass that math section. Luckily she could retake the test as often as she wished and having a good memory she memorized the correct answers and was able to get her diploma.

    Many students struggle with reading but can do algebra. On the graduation skills test the math section is the hardest. What do people need most, reading skills or algebra skills? Children would be much better served if reading was prioritized even if they fall behind in other subjects.

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