Southbound Amtrak rider returns to banana republic!


Wall Street Journal latest to bungle the NAEP: How bad is education reporting within the establishment press corps?

It tends to be very bad. Last Thursday, Kevin Drum cited a bungled news report which illustrated this point.

“Sometimes I just want to cry,” Drum was willing to acknowledge. As we return to our sprawling campus and prepare to resume our normal functions, we thought we'd review what Drum said—and we thought we’d tack on a few points.

The report was written by Stephanie Banchero of the Wall Street Journal. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had released some information about the vocabulary section of its 2011 reading test. As Banchero started, she massively bungled some basic facts about the NAEP data in question.

This is the passage by Banchero which had Drum tearing his hair:
BANCHERO (12/6/12): Students Fall Flat in Vocabulary Test

U.S. students knew only about half of what they were expected to on a new vocabulary section of a national exam, in the latest evidence of severe shortcomings in the nation's reading education. Eighth-graders scored an average of 265 out of 500 in vocabulary on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the results of which were made public Thursday. Fourth-graders averaged a score of 218 out of 500.
As Drum noted, that passage is well beyond awful. (Drum: “This is wrong on so many levels I don't even know where to start.”) In an irony we’ve noted many times, the writer completely bungles the basics of the topic on which she’s reporting, even as she rolls her eyes at the way These Kids Today cannt eeven lurn too reed guud.

Rather plainly, Banchero gives the impression that 500 is the expected score for a student taking the NAEP—that a student who scores around 250 only knows about half of what is expected. As Drum explains, this is completely erroneous.

In fact, a fourth-grader gets credit for performing at the “basic” level on the NAEP reading test if he gets a “scale score” of 208. A student is rated “proficient” if her “scale score” is 238.

Some experts have argued that the NAEP sets the bar for “proficiency” at an unnaturally high level. However one assesses that claim, Banchero seems to have no idea how the basic NAEP scoring scale works, as Drum explains.

But uh-oh! A bit later in her report, Banchero made a related claim which deserves an equal measure of attention. Her gloomy claim is extremely common within the establishment press:
BANCHERO: The new vocabulary test was embedded in the biennial national reading exam, known as the NAEP. Last year's scores were in line with those posted in 2009, the first time vocabulary scores were broken out, but the latest results are the first to be made public. Experts noted that the results mirror the performance on the national reading test, which has yielded fairly static scores for a decade.
Has the NAEP reading test “yielded fairly static scores for a decade?”

Such gloomy pronouncements are quite standard when the press corps reports on our schools. But here’s the problem: That claim pretty much isn’t true.

We know, we know—there is no objective measure of what “fairly static” scores are. Your idea of encouraging progress might be Banchero’s idea of stasis. But at the fourth-grade level, all three major student groups have shown fairly significant gains on the NAEP reading test if we compare the 2000 testing to the testing done last year.

How much have reading scores improved? The average score for black fourth-graders went from 190 to 205 during that eleven-year period. The average score for Hispanic fourth-graders went from 190 to 206. Those are very significant gains, if we apply a rough rule of thumb in which ten points on the NAEP scale is commonly said to equal one academic year.

That is a very rough rule of thumb. But in our view, it’s silly to say that those reading scores have been “fairly static.” (Math scores have risen more.)

We don’t mean to single out Banchero. As we’ve noted again and again, complete incompetence is the norm when establishment press organs report on the NAEP.

In 2012, Gail Collins plainly won the prize for the dumbest NAEP reporting, thanks to her ludicrous, disgraceful reporting on the Texas public schools. This is not a conservative thing, an artifact of the Journal. All across the establishment press, it’s routine to see gross incompetence about the NAEP put to the service of gloomy narratives about our hopelessly failing schools and the crummy teachers within them. It's the way our "press corps" rolls!

Alas! Voters have heard this crap for a very long time, from everyone from Obama on down—and voters have come to believe it. At the Journal, conservative readers go the extra mile; they litter their comments with standard remarks about teachers unions and the like. But liberal commenters to New York Times columns tend to mouth the same talking-points about how the kids keep getting dumber and dumber and nothing seems to work.

At the Journal, you do get the extra effort. After Banchero's report appeared, this comment appeared early in the thread:
COMMENT: No surprise in this, at least to anyone who has glanced at a range of blogs.

And former VP Gore predicted some 15 years ago that putting a computer in every child's hands would instantly make them literate.
Gore never said any such thing, of course. When a second commenter pointed this out, he received this sad reply:
COMMENT: Of course he didn't have time to say this.....he was too busy creating the Internet.
Helped by our “journalists” and by our “intellectual leaders,” We the People are relentlessly uninformed and just irrepressibly dumb. And as we make our inane rearks, we complain about the pitiful, deepening dumbness of the nation’s 9-year-old children!

In fairness, some of Drum’s commenters were steeped in conspiracy, seeming to think that this sort of misreporting only goes on in the Journal. It’s hard to top a comment like that last one. But over in our tribe, we try.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at some liberal commenters who responded to Charles Blow’s latest column. We liberals love to insist that we’re the bright ones.

The evidence is sometimes quite mixed.


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  2. The connection between attacks on labor and focus on schools have a history. If you read about policies in the 1950's for example, there was a strong push to create elite schools. I wonder if that had roots in the new idea in the Carnegie Corp. of investing in talent rather than "libraries and church organs." And if you can trace it all the way back to the boom of post-Civil War colonialism and industrialization, which is supporting all this power in the first place, you could maybe figure out what is at the root of this dumbness.

  3. And did no one note the poor grammar of the commentator who should have noted that Gore claimed "putting a computer in every child's hands would instantly make him or her literate." (Or alternatively, that putting computers in the hands of all children would.....

  4. On this Banchero piece, see also:

    The article quotes sample passages from the tests in question and explains some ways in which the tests work (and some possible weaknesses in the test). As some of the commenters note, these 4th and 8th graders are impressive! Not easy passages to read, or questions about them to answer.

    Lewis' line of inquiry: very much worth pursuing, I think. His example of the push for elite schools in the 1950's might explain something I distinctly remember. When I was in junior high and high school in 1960's NJ, my school's "tracking" was very controversial, at least at my family's dinner table. My father disapproved ("benefits to everyone from being in classes with a wide range of students, people"), my mother approved (she worried that, without tracking, brighter or more motivated students -- however much all that was due to privileged background in many cases -- would get bored and/or lose valuable opportunities for learning).

  5. "And former VP Gore predicted some 15 years ago that putting a computer in every child's hands would instantly make them literate."

    "Gore never said any such thing, of course."

    OK! We get it.

    You love Al Gore and he can do no wrong.

    Get a room.

  6. The reason I trace it back to the industrial age is because that's when it becomes easiest to see the beliefs that the state pushes onto the country. For example, in ancient Egypt, one cult of priests would often take power using the surplus of some technological breakthrough.

    It turns as far as US history goes, this has already been studied. In his essay "Intellectuals and the State" Noam Chomsky highlights a dissident intellectual named Randolph Bourne, who was fired from the New Republic for opposing the seizure of power by technocrats. On commenting on war propaganda, he wrote: "For the benefit of proud and haughty citizens, [the argument for war] is fortified with a list of the intolerable insults which have been hurled toward us by the other nations; for the benefit of the liberal and beneficent, it has a convincing set of moral purposes which our going to war will achieve; for the ambitious and aggressive classes, it can gently whisper of a bigger role in the destiny of the world." He is further proven right as he argued war makes the propaganda reveal itself. If that's the case, not only would the 1970's be a time to see the goals of the reforms stated, but every time the country is mobilized for war. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be making it clear once more, and they are. For example, Chicago teachers have pointed out the mayor is interested only in creating charter schools and ultimately closing down public education. Rahm was the largest Democratic proponent of the war in Iraq, and a secretary under the current administration waging those wars. Going back a few decades, this connection between war propaganda and the public reform shows up in several ways. It's right there in the mainstream record: "Reagan declared competition between public and private schools to be the best remedy for what ailed public education and sought to disperse billions of dollars in federal education aid through vouchers redeemable at either type of school." (daily beast). His administration got the ball rolling with a report titled "A Nation at Risk" -- which explicitly used the metaphor of a foreign invasion to justify reforming schools. (Wikipedia) Reagan, along with Lincoln, was one of Obama's favorite presidents.

    The reason a Dow Jones/ Newscorp newspaper pushes this line is a class interest, easily understood (perhaps there is more evidence required). With all its connections to the Republican party and the industrial elites its self-interest at least should be obvious. For example, the managers of Dow Jones before the merger sit on boards like "The Manufacturing Institute's Education Council" who are "are leaders in education, with the expertise to assist in developing national strategies to expand and enhance our manufacturing workforce."