TALES OF THE NAEP: Mississippi (said to be) rising!

THURSDAY, JANUARY 9, 2020

Ninth letter tells the tale:
On Sunday, December 22, the New York Times published a set of nine letters about our public schools.

The first eight letters all seemed to endorse a familiar claim—a familiar claim we would regard as grossly misleading. The fourth letter stated the gloomy premise most clearly:
The stagnant results of the international PISA exam have spoken: An extensive overhaul in the American education system is desperately needed.
An extensive overhaul is desperately needed! In our view, that familiar claim tends to misrepresent the results from last year's Pisa tests. For our previous reports about those letters, click here.

That said, the assessment stated in that letter is familiar and very gloomy. By now, almost everyone has internalized that assessment. Everyone is inclined to recite it, as those first eight letters show.

Those first eight letters advanced a gloomy assessment—a gloomy assessment which had emerged from the a highly selective Times report on the newly-released Pisa scores. Those first eight letters recited sweetly. It's the soul of our journalism and of our floundering discourse.

The ninth letter did something which is almost never done. It blew the whistle on a gong-show column—a column which had appeared in the Times on December 6.

In that column, Emily Hanover had delivered an upbeat report about rising test scores in Mississippi.

Hanover is an education reporter for American Public Media. Mississippi's Grade 4 reading scores have been on the rise since 2013, she excitedly wrote in the Times. Indeed, fourth graders in our poorest state were now meeting the national average in reading, she said.

Why were those Naep scores on the rise? Mississippi began stressing phonics in 2013, Hanover somewhat implausibly wrote. That said, she chose slightly loftier language. The headlines on her column say this:
There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It
The state’s reliance on cognitive science explains why.
The state was relying on cognitive science! Based in part on an earlier colun in the Times, it was clear that she meant the teaching of phonics.

Mississippi's reading scores were on the rise because the state had started teaching phonics! As we noted yesterday, this didn't quite seem to make sense. Mississippi's scores had risen by a similar amount in Grade 4 math. After disaggregating the scores by race, the scores seemed implausibly high, given the fact that Mississippi is our poorest state.

Could those rising scores, and that high achievement, really have come from something as simple, and as basic, as the teaching pf phonics? To us, the claim didn't exactly seem to make sense—and then, the ninth letter appeared!

The letter came from "a retired education professor at Hunter College." It posited a different reason for the rise in those Naep scores:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (12/22/19): Emily Hanford’s piece about improved test scores in reading in Mississippi since the state began funding in 2013 to train its teachers in a particular methodology certainly sounds optimistic. However, there’s another reason, a big one, for the improvement in fourth-grade reading scores, which Ms. Hanford didn’t mention.

In 2013, Mississippi passed a Literacy Based Promotion Act
, which mandated that in most cases, a student scoring at the lowest achievement level on the state-mandated third-grade achievement test won’t be promoted to fourth grade. Voilà! The weakest readers in third grade don’t move up to fourth grade, and the fourth-grade reading scores go up.
Say what? According to the retired professor, that "particular methodology" (the teaching of phonics) didn't provide the sole explanation for Mississippi's improved reading scores.

She said there was another reason for the improvement—"a big one." Mississippi has started making its weakest readers repeat third grade, the retired professor said.

The weakest readers in third grade don’t get promoted to fourth. As a result, the average scores in fourth grade goes up!

Could a change in promotion policies explain the rise in Mississippi's scores? And remember—the scores have also risen in Grade 4 math. It isn't just reading scores!

We checked what the professor had said. The New York Times should be embarrassed by what we found.

In fact, Mississippi did adopt a new promotion policy back in 2013. The state did begin requiring more of its lower-performing students to spend an additional year in Grade 3 before moving on to fourth grade.

Eventually, those kids do take the Grade 4 Naep—unless they get "promoted" directly to fifth grade, a type of trick which was used in Texas during the Bush and post-Bush years. Assuming they doend up in fourth grade, they get an extra year to develop their reading and math skills before they take the Grade 4 Naep. Presumably, this tilts the field in Mississippi's favor on those Grade 4 tests.

Does this explain Mississippi's rising scores in Grade 4 reading and Grade 4 math? Does this explain why Mississippi's black and white fourth graders are both outscoring their national peers in both reading and math, by a substantial margin?

AS far as we know, there's no way to measure the extent to which this retention policy has affected the state's Naep scores. But the situation had been widely discussed long before Hanford wrote her column, and it's astonishing that she would have written her column for the Times without discussing this matter.

As noted, Hanford's column appeared in the Times on December 6. Eight months earlier, the Associated Press had offered this full-length report about the toughened retention policy. Along the way, the AP's Jeff Amy included this note:
AMY (4/20/19): The mandatory retention policy remains controversial nationwide. Experts agree students who flunk a grade are more likely to drop out. While third-grade reading policies typically call for intensive remedial work for students who are held back, one study found the boost helps for a while but eventually fades.

[...]

The Republican policymakers who adopted Mississippi's plan from Florida support it, pointing to improvements in performance on a nationwide test. Mississippi is paying for literacy coaches to help improve instruction in 182 of 420 schools statewide with a third grade. The state has also provided training on teaching reading to 13,000 people, and provides extra money for summer schools for struggling readers.
In theory, literacy coaches are a good thing. In theory, so is extra money for summer school. So is additional training on the teaching of reading, though all good ideas can be bungled.

For ourselves, we're inclined to think that making students repeat one or more grades does more harm than good. Others take a different view. As far as we know, there is no Official Established Truth concerning this question.

That said, if State A is retaining a lot of third graders and State B isn't, that would tend to tilt the playing field on the Grade 4 Naep in State A's favor. And uh-oh! According to Amy, Mississippi makes a lot of kids repeat a grade long before Grade 3:
AMY: Mississippi has long flunked the largest proportion of young students nationwide, often students from poor households who enroll lacking groundwork for academics. Last year, Mississippi held back 9% of kindergartners, 8% of first graders and 6% of second graders.
We can't tell you if that's a constructive policy. It does mean that a lot of kids taking the Grade 4 tests in reading and math are actually fifth- or sixth-graders by age, with one or two more years of instruction than other fourth grade kids.

(Maddeningly, Amy didn't say how many of the state's third graders had been held back last year. For that number, see below.)

In the first passage we quoted, Amy said that Mississippi policymakers were "pointing to improvements in performance on a nationwide test." Presumably, that was a reference to the Naep—and sure enough:

Five weeks before Hanover's column appeared in the Times, The Hechinger Report had offered a full-length report about Mississippi's rising scores. The report had appeared beneath this double headline:
Mississippi made the biggest leap in national test scores this year. Is this controversial law the reason why?
Education officials credit efforts an increased focus on childhood literacy, including a controversial retention policy, for the academic gains.
Hechinger describes itself as "an independent, nonprofit newsroom" which focuses on education issues. In her report, its reporter, Bracey Harris, directly referred to the Naep:
HARRIS (11/1/19): Mississippi is one of 16 states requiring students to show a certain level of reading ability in order to pass third grade, although some research suggests that holding students back can hurt rather than help them. More than 3,300 Mississippi students, or about 10 percent of last year’s third graders, have to repeat third grade this year, more than double the number of third graders retained the year before, according to the state Department of Education.

[...]

State officials may have reason to believe that raising the bar will pay off. Between 2011 and 2017, Mississippi’s fourth graders posted the second-largest improvement on the NAEP reading exam in the country. Over the past four years, the percentage of fourth, fifth and seventh grade students performing at a proficient or advanced level on the state’s English language arts exam has also increased.
The potential effects of the state's retention policies had long been under discussion. It's amazing to think that Hanover never even mentioned this matter in her upbeat, somewhat implausible column for the perpetually hornswoggled Times.

That said, the story gets worse! In her somewhat implausible column, Hanover pompously attributed Mississippi's score gains to its embrace of "the science of reading." In its headline, the Times jacked that formulation up, referring to "cognitive science."

Based in part on an earlier column, it seems clear that this was a reference to the teaching of phonics. But where did Hanover get that somewhat pretentious language?

Ugh! On December 4, yet another report—this time by the Fordham Institute—offered the horrible highlighted point. Again, we're including the headline:
COLLINS (12/4/19): Mississippi rising? A partial explanation for its NAEP improvement is that it holds students back

One of the bright spots in an otherwise dreary 2019 NAEP report is Mississippi. A long-time cellar dweller in the NAEP rankings, Mississippi students have risen faster than anyone since 2013, particularly for fourth graders. In fourth grade reading results, Mississippi boosted its ranking from forty-ninth in 2013 to twenty-ninth in 2019; in math, they zoomed from fiftieth to twenty-third. Adjusted for demographics, Mississippi now ranks near the top in fourth grade reading and math according to the Urban Institute’s America’s Gradebook report.

So how have they done it?
Education commentators have pointed to several possible causes: roll-out of early literacy programs and professional development (Cowen & Forte), faithful implementation of Common Core standards (Petrilli), and focus on the “science of reading” (State Superintendent Carey Wright).
Someone had even "adjusted for demographics." Imagine doing that!

At any rate, Hanover had simply adopted the language of the state superintendent when she offered her pompous point. The state had focused on "the science of reading." Forget all those kids it held back!

To what extent do Mississippi's scores result from its retention policies? We know of no way to say.

Will those policies work out well in the end, or will they simply increase the ultimate drop-out rate? We can't answer that either.

We can tell you this:

It was virtual journalistic malpractice when Hanover failed to mention this factor in her rather implausible column for the Times. Meanwhile, regarding the Times, what more can we say?

Especially in the realm of public education, if you read it in the New York Times, you should start checking your wallets. The paper's work in this field has been awful forever. It's skillful at getting it wrong.

For ourselves, Hanover's column never exactly seemed to make sense. Nor did her work seem especially competent. Her failure to disaggregate scores—to adjust for demographics—struck us as a typical manifestation. In the realm of public schools, our discourse runs on such fuel.

We checked one way Naep scores can be gamed, at least in theory. If a state disqualifies an unusual number of students from taking the tests on the grounds of disability, that state can tip the scales in its favor on the Naep.

A few states did this a few years back; in response, the Naep tightened its procedures. When we checked the Naep's data on this point, we found that Mississippi's disqualification rates have been very low, as is now the norm across the nation.

That said, widespread grade retention can likely tilt a state's average Naep scores. It was virtual malpractice when Hanover blew right past this point, even as she kissed the keister of the state superintendent's explanation for the success of his own scientific approach.

Needless to say, this bungled column appeared in the Times. If it concerns the public schools, and it appears in the New York Times, you can safely assume that something is wrong.

Feckless incompetence of this type leads to a Trump.

Tomorrow: The only "solution" that counts

33 comments:

  1. "In that column, Emily Hanover had delivered an upbeat report about rising test scores in Mississippi."

    Her name is Emily Hanford.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Is it so hard to make sure you get someone's name right, when you are writing a whole column to trash her?

      Delete
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  2. "Based in part on an earlier colun in the Times, it was clear that she meant the teaching of phonics."

    No, as she clearly explains, she meant the teaching of decoding coupled with understanding the meanings of words. Not one or the other alone. The cognitive science involved in decoding is not exactly the same as the old phonics approach. Times have changed.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "Could those rising scores, and that high achievement, really have come from something as simple, and as basic, as the teaching pf phonics? To us, the claim didn't exactly seem to make sense—and then, the ninth letter appeared!"

    Actually Hanford didn't make that claim. This is Somerby's straw man.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Holding kids back is now part of the "science" of reading. Holding kids back used to be avoided due to social stigma. With studies finding that feared negative consequences didn't happen, 16 states now hold kids back in order to address reading difficulties early on, before they lead to cumulative learning problems.

    MS didn't simply hold kids back. It took a different approach with the held back kids in order to help them overcome their difficulties. That different approach to helping kids who do not easily learn to read, is part of the science of reading too.

    Numerous changes were made in MS schools, not simply holding kids back. It may be pleasing to Somerby to ream Hanford for listening to school professionals about what they did, but the Fordham study quoted in that 9th letter is not the last word on reading education.

    Bring on the nihilism, Somerby. Then tell us how much you care about children.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good use of scare quotes around the word science in the phrase "the 'science' of reading." That should be mandatory for all disciplines that have to tell that they are sciences: social "science," cognitive "science," computer "science."

      Delete
  5. There's a new book coming out by Paul Krugman which must be about Mao. It's called "Arguing with Zombies"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a two-page book.
      Page one: Find a Conservative who will make a good-faith argument.
      Page two: Die of old age having failed to do the impossible.

      Delete
  6. “Last year, Mississippi held back 9% of kindergartners, 8% of first graders and 6% of second graders.”

    The retention policy was first adopted in 2015. The newest change, a raised “cut” score, resulting in a spike in retention indicated by the above percentages, took place after the most recent naep test was given. It did not affect the outcome of the 2019 test. Prior to that, the retention rates spiked in 2015, but then settled back to earlier levels (around 2%).

    “It does mean that a lot of kids taking the Grade 4 tests in reading and math are actually fifth- or sixth-graders by age, with one or two more years of instruction than other fourth grade kids.”

    The rise in scores, according to the Hechinger Report, isn’t due to older kids. It is due to the holding back of poor performers. If you look at the naep, there is a data point that measures age of student: those with greater modal age than the grade level do worse on the test.

    “To what extent do Mississippi's scores result from its retention policies? We know of no way to say.”

    Here is someone who actually tries to examine this situation:

    http://www.bipps.org/some-more-food-for-thought-on-the-mississippi-naep-situation/

    The point is, it’s likely that the retention policy has some effect on naep scores, but it’s also possible that the new instructional method, introduced in 2013, also has an effect. The truth is likely somewhere in between. But Somerby, as a media critic, ought to apply the same critical standards to the Hechinger Report article as he does to Hanford’s editorial. It’s a bit lazy to try to disprove a media story by simply citing a second media story without critical examination of the second one.

    ReplyDelete
  7. To be complete, maybe Somerby should discuss the widespread practice of holding boys back a year in pre-kindergarten so that they have more time to develop before being expected to learn harder things, such as reading?

    This is especially widespread in Texas, where boys are routinely held back a year in order to be bigger for sports like football by the time they hit the upper grades.

    Does an extra year help them on the NAEP too? If not, why not? NAEP tests at a particular grade level in order to hold the curriculum constant, not to keep the age of the children constant.

    This is the reason why Somerby shows no concern about the math PISA scores. The curriculum tested by PISA is not the same as that taught in US schools.

    This isn't a matter of how many years kids have to learn a certain amount of material. It is about what kids know at the point where they have encountered the same curriculum across US schools -- and it is the schools being measured, not the kids (their scores are a measure of the effectiveness of the schools).

    If holding back kids in reading gave them an extra year's advantage, the repetition in math should show an advantage there too. It doesn't seem to. That suggests that something more than just repetition is improving the reading scores.

    But Somerby doesn't seem to understand how science works and he doesn't understand how to reason about statistics either. In fact, he thinks the term "science" is "pretentious". In this, he is following the conservative line that science is bogus and not something to use to inform practice in any area of human endeavor, especially when it might challenge cherished beliefs, such as in the intransigent stupidity of black kids.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If holding back kids in reading gave them an extra year's advantage, the repetition in math should show an advantage there too. It doesn't seem to.

      But it does. Mississippi started its increased retention policies in 2013, when the national 4th-grade NAEP average score in math was 242, and the state lagged with a 231. By 2019, Mississippi’s score was 241, the same as the national average.

      Delete
  8. “Everyone is inclined to recite it, as those first eight letters show.”

    As everyone knows, eight letters to the editor selected by the editors of the New York Times show that “everyone” is inclined to recite that assessment.

    In reality, it shows what the New York Times’ agenda is, and nothing else.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Here is a definition of cognitive science: "the study of thought, learning, and mental organization, which draws on aspects of psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and computer modeling"

    Here is an article about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_science

    As described, learning and development, including language acquisition, are part of cognitive science.

    This is an actual science, because it uses scientific method to answer questions about how humans think and learn. The results are now information education and the development of techniques for teaching children. To the extent that educational practice is now on a sounder empirical footing, education has been improving and the increasing NAEP scores are an indicator of this change.

    That they are leveling off may be because there are fewer opportunities for improvement now that education has incorporated findings from cognitive science and developmental psychology into its methods. NAEP increases may have resulted from replacing education fad with tested approaches, but there may be less chance to do that now that education has come up to speed with what is known in these other disciplines.

    Much of this has happened since Somerby taught, so he may be unaware of this sea change, but that is no reason for him to persistently attack scientific approaches, as he keeps doing (along with attacks on professors themselves, and now Hanford).

    ReplyDelete
  10. “Somerby is only interested in the reporting.” That is a frequent rebuttal to criticism of Somerby that faults him for not examining the underlying issues of the stories he criticizes, Hanford’s science of reading for example.

    Unfortunately, besides attacking her linking of score gain with the new method she advocates, he is obviously attempting to belittle her method, just as Drum did in his post the other day. Just recall the dismissive “summary” of her method TDH attempted recently and his insistence on misrepresenting her views here as merely “phonics” instruction. Thus, his agenda is more than simply a fair analysis of the reporting.

    Why wouldn’t a media critic who often focuses on education be interested in looking at Hanford’s ideas in their own right? He doesn’t need to advocate her position, but, given the possibility that her ideas may actually have great benefit for kids, why not give them a fair shake and see what media reports and research has to say about them, apart from their connection with Mississippi’s score gains?

    It isn’t as if Somerby doesn’t in some ways function as a journalist; he does. He does independent research, mostly looking at naep data, but also trying to find alternative views. No reason he can’t investigate Hanford’s method with an even hand.

    And his constant use of phrases like “As far as we know” and “We can't tell you” represents the luxury of someone who isn’t involved in the real effort of educating our kids and who doesn’t actually have to make real-life decisions about how best to educate our kids, such as decisions involving the science of reading and retention policies, to name a couple.

    ReplyDelete
  11. "For ourselves, we're inclined to think that making students repeat one or more grades does more harm than good."

    Really? Now, that's just stupid, dear Bob, if I may say so.

    Why would you promote someone who hasn't learned the current grade's material to the next grade? It doesn't make any sense at all. For a whole bunch of obvious reasons.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Why would you promote someone who hasn't learned the current grade's material to the next grade?"

      Because that someone's parents are rich. That's how the "merit system" works nowadays.

      Delete
    2. This doesn't explain why schools have been so reluctant to advance highly gifted students through grade skipping. This is called the age-in-grade lockstep and it has been part of public education since the 1960s. More recent studies show few harmful effects of being held back or skipped ahead, nevertheless schools are reluctant to do either.

      If it were only about money, you'd think the rich people would want their bright kids to move through the grades faster.

      Delete
  12. From Harris’ report in Hechinger:

    “More than 3,300 Mississippi students, or about 10 percent of last year’s third graders, have to repeat third grade this year”

    This represents the number who, *at the end of the 2018-2019 school year*, were not promoted to fourth grade in the current school year. (https://www.mdek12.org/sites/default/files/Offices/MDE/SSE/lbpa_summary_2018.pdf)

    The 2019 naep test was administered *prior to* this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. OK, good point. Mississippi's retention rates for the third grade soared for the 2018-2019 school year. It was still twice the national average the year before, but we'll have to wait for the 2020 NAEP to see the effect of the current policy (Interestingly enough, the high K-2 retention rates didn't change much.) I will downgrade my estimate of the chances that cognitive "science " worked miracles from "when pigs fly outta yer butt" to "when hell experiences a cold snap."

      Delete
  13. Many of the "Anonymous" posts seem to come form the same author. A request: could you please adopt a username, so that we can see which posts are yours? Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not going to happen.

      I write some of the anonymous posts, but other people are writing the rest of them.

      You shouldn't assume that people saying similar things are the same person. There is some agreement here on several subjects.

      I did notice that when I was gone for 10 days, someone else (or perhaps several people) picked up the slack and wrote the kind of things that I might have written.

      Delete
    2. Not going to happen

      Perhaps you could speculate on the reasons for this. Unless you're the Anonymous Ignoramus who's already told us that adopting a nym here could get you doxxed.

      I write some of the anonymous posts, but other people are writing the rest of them.

      Perhaps you could tell us how you know there are other people, plural, besides you.

      I did notice that when I was gone for 10 days, someone else (or perhaps several people) picked up the slack....

      Plenty of slack to go around.



      Delete
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    I was hurt and heart broken when a very big problem occurred in my marriage seven months ago, between me and my husband . so terrible that he took the case to court for a divorce. he said that he never wanted to stay with me again,and that he didn't love me anymore. So he packed out of the house and made me and my children passed through severe pain. I tried all my possible means to get him back,after much begging,but all to no avail.and he confirmed it that he has made his decision,and he never wanted to see me again. So on one evening,as i was coming back from work,i met an old friend of mine who asked of my husband .So i explained every thing to him,so he told me that the only way i can get my husband back,is to visit a spell caster,because it has really worked for him too. So i never believed in spell,but i had no other choice,than to follow his advice. Then he gave me the Email address of the spell caster whom he visited. Pristbacasim2000@gmail.com. So the next morning,i sent a mail to the address he gave to me,and the spell caster assured me that i will get my husband back the next day. What an amazing statement!! I never believed,so he spoke with me, and told me everything that i need to do. Then the next morning, So surprisingly, my husband who didn't call me for the past 7 months, gave me a call to inform me that he was coming back. So Amazing!! So that was how he came back that same day,with lots of love and joy,and he apologized for his mistake,and for the pain he caused me and my children. Then from that day,our relationship was now stronger than how it were before,by the help of a spell caster. So, i will advice you out there if you have any problem contact Pristbacasim, i give you 100% guarantee that he will help you.. Email him at: Pristbacasim2000@gmail.com



    ReplyDelete
  17. Testimony By Lizzy Desler. How to get your ex back fast!

    I was hurt and heart broken when a very big problem occurred in my marriage seven months ago, between me and my husband . so terrible that he took the case to court for a divorce. he said that he never wanted to stay with me again,and that he didn't love me anymore. So he packed out of the house and made me and my children passed through severe pain. I tried all my possible means to get him back,after much begging,but all to no avail.and he confirmed it that he has made his decision,and he never wanted to see me again. So on one evening,as i was coming back from work,i met an old friend of mine who asked of my husband .So i explained every thing to him,so he told me that the only way i can get my husband back,is to visit a spell caster,because it has really worked for him too. So i never believed in spell,but i had no other choice,than to follow his advice. Then he gave me the Email address of the spell caster whom he visited. Pristbacasim2000@gmail.com. So the next morning,i sent a mail to the address he gave to me,and the spell caster assured me that i will get my husband back the next day. What an amazing statement!! I never believed,so he spoke with me, and told me everything that i need to do. Then the next morning, So surprisingly, my husband who didn't call me for the past 7 months, gave me a call to inform me that he was coming back. So Amazing!! So that was how he came back that same day,with lots of love and joy,and he apologized for his mistake,and for the pain he caused me and my children. Then from that day,our relationship was now stronger than how it were before,by the help of a spell caster. So, i will advice you out there if you have any problem contact Pristbacasim, i give you 100% guarantee that he will help you.. Email him at: Pristbacasim2000@gmail.com



    ReplyDelete
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