It happened in Massachusetts—and in Texas too!


Interlude—The improvement: In theory, our country is trying to improve the math and reading skills of our public school students.

In some ways, of course, such improvement won’t matter. For example, if the reign of the one percent continues, kids may get better in reading and math, improving their productivity in the workplace.

But so what? The workplace gains which result will get looted, will be drained off by the one percent! This is the process which now obtains in our massive health care spending, a process characterized by types of looting the press corps will not discuss.

Whatever! It makes obvious sense to seek better outcomes in public schools. This brings us back to the portrait of Massachusetts schools in yesterday’s New York Times.

On the front page of the weekly Science Times section, Kenneth Chang discussed the improvement in science and math achieved in Bay State schools. And omigod!

Breaking every rule in the book, Chang even suggested that the United States hasn’t suffered “decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education,” as Bill Keller recently declared. Can Kenneth Chang do that?

Whatever! Right at the start of his report, Chang described the Bay State’s current lofty status, and its improvement over the last twenty years:
CHANG (9/3/13): If Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science, behind only Singapore, according to TIMSS—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which surveys knowledge and skills of fourth and eighth graders around the world. (The most recent version, in 2011, tested more than 600,000 students in 63 nations.)

Massachusetts eighth graders also did well in mathematics, coming in sixth, behind Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. The United States as a whole came in 10th in science and 9th in math, with scores that were above the international average.

Of course, TIMSS is only one test, and achievement tests are incomplete indicators of educational prowess. But behind Massachusetts’ raw numbers are two decades of sustained efforts to lift science and mathematics education. Educators and officials chose a course and held to it, even when the early results were deeply disappointing.

While Massachusetts has a richer and better-educated population than most states, it is not uniformly wealthy. The gains reflected improvement across the state, including poorer districts.
“I think we are a proof point of what’s possible,” the state education commissioner was quoted saying.

A bit later on, Chang offered a fleeting account of Massachusetts’ degree of improvement. He refers to the state’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the widely-praised “gold standard” of domestic educational testing:

“On tests administered by the federal Education Department, Massachusetts, which had been above average, rose to No. 1 among the 50 states in math.”

Massachusetts was always above average in math, Chang says. Now, it ranks first among the fifty states. Chang offers some fairly fuzzy accounts of the way this rise occurred—fuzzy accounts which sometimes have a familiar “feel good” journalistic appeal.

Before we look at those accounts of the way the Bay State improved, let’s get clearer on the amount of improvement the state has recorded. Let’s go back to 1996, the last year for NAEP math testing before the Bay State reforms Chang will discuss.

Chang is right! In 1996, Massachusetts was already above average in eighth-grade math, but it wasn’t the national leader. If we look at its overall score, Massachusetts ranked 11th out of 41 states in eighth grade math that year.

(Some states still weren’t participating in statewide NAEP testing.)

That’s what we see if we go by the overall score of the whole student population. If we disaggregate scores, we get a somewhat different picture of Massachusetts’ performance in 1996:

White students in Massachusetts ranked only 14th among those 41 states in 1996. Black students in Massachusetts ranked sixth among the 31 states for which the NAEP had tested a sufficient sample of students.

That was the state of play in eighth grade math in 1996. The most recent NAEP testing occurred in 2011, with Massachusetts at the top of the pack—at least, until you disaggregate.

In its overall score, the Bay State stood first in the nation in 2011, by a substantial margin. Its white students also led the nation, besting New Jersey (and Texas) by a slender margin.

Its black students ranked third among the 44 states with a significant sample size, trailing only cultural outlier Hawaii and—you guessed it!—Texas. That said, Hispanic students in Massachusetts ranked 17th out of 46 states, far behind the national leaders, Montana and (once again) Texas.

Chang’s statement was technically accurate, but it was somewhat misleading. Massachusetts is number one in eighth grade math—if you don’t disaggregate.

But in part, this reflects the demographics of the state’s student population, which is disproportionately white and middle-class. In the 2011 NAEP test to which Chang refers, black and Hispanic students in Texas outscored their peers in Massachusetts!

You are very unlikely to learn such facts by reading the New York Times. As a result, Times readers were furious just last week when Ross Douthat made an accurate reference to those high test scores in Texas.

Whatever! Bay State kids did improve their scores a great deal in those fifteen years. And their score gains were larger than those observed across the nation.

Across the nation, white students gained 12.2 points in eighth grade math over those fifteen years—years in which Bill Keller will tell you that we were experiencing an “embarrassing decline in K-12 education.” But white students in the Bay State gained a whopping 21.3 points!

(By a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often compared to one academic year.)

Somewhat similarly: Despite the embarrassing K-12 decline, black students across the nation gained a walloping 20.5 points in eighth grade math over that 15-year period. In Massachusetts, the score gain was greater, though not by a huge amount. Black students in Massachusetts gained 25.1 points.

Across the nation, Hispanic students gained 19.1 points. In Massachusetts, the gain was 33.9 points.

Score gains were larger in Massachusetts than in the nation as a whole. That said, score gains were comparable in Texas, and the 2011 scores were higher for black and Hispanic students, essentially the same for white students.

Can we talk? By restricting himself to overall scores, Chang engaged in a bit of blue-state happy talk, a staple of Times tribal culture. If we accept the basic accuracy of NAEP scores, then whatever happened in Massachusetts was happening in Texas too.

New York Times readers will rarely be asked to encounter such tribally unpleasant facts. When such facts get mentioned in passing, angry readers rebel!

Whatever! In the bulk of his report, Chang tried to explain the reasons for the Bay State’s improvement—improvement which seems quite substantial to judge by those NAEP scores. Essentially, he was describing a state full of (unionized) public school teachers who busted their humps to improve math and science instruction, even as your nation’s ranking journalists were mortified by the “embarrassing decline” they kept hearing described at cocktail parties.

Chang tried to explain the reasons for the Bay State improvement. We’ll only note the familiar feel-goodism which tends to invade such Times reports, as if by Hard Pundit Law.

Where do the feel-good frameworks appear? For starters, note this account of what happened in working-class Chelsea down through the years after Massachusetts introduced statewide testing (the MCAS) in 1998:
CHANG: In the small city of Chelsea, which borders Boston, almost 90 percent of the students come from low-income families and most did not speak English as their first language. On the first MCAS, two-thirds of Chelsea 10th graders failed math. The science scores were nearly as dismal.


Critics worried that when the use of MCAS as a graduation requirement kicked in, thousands of students would be deprived of their diplomas and would drop out in despair. Dr. Driscoll, who was elevated to education commissioner in 1998, kept the MCAS.

People were expecting it to go away,” Robert D. Gaudet, the lead UMass researcher, recalled in a recent interview. “He held to his guns.”

Officials did make adjustments. Students who fail the MCAS can retake it several times until they pass, and can still graduate if they otherwise demonstrate they have learned the material.

Test scores have risen markedly. Last year, 54 percent of Chelsea 10th graders were proficient or advanced on the math MCAS.
The Bay State stuck to its guns! Last year, 54 percent of Chelsea 10th graders were proficient or advanced on the MCAS math test!

Plainly, we’re supposed to be blown away by the progress. But are we reading that passage correctly? If so, doesn’t it (somewhat murkily) say that the passing rate in tenth grade has only increased from 33 percent to 54 percent over the past fifteen years?

If that’s what that passage says, that would of course represent an improvement, assuming the MCAS test hasn’t changed. But it wouldn’t be a gigantic improvement, despite the feel-good framing.

Beyond that, how many of those Chelsea kids are kept from graduating in the end, despite the chance to retake the test? That figure doesn’t appear, although it plainly should have.

We also thought we saw some familiar feel-good messaging as Chang moved on to somewhat more middle-class Braintree. In this passage, it sounds like the MCAS tests have diagnostic uses, thereby improving instruction:
CHANG: Dr. Rees, the Braintree schools’ science director, said the [statewide] standards helped make sure that teachers across the state covered the same subjects, laying the groundwork for subsequent grades.

“There’s a logic to that, a progression,” she said. “You start learning about solids in kindergarten. In first grade, you learn about solids and liquids, and then in second grade, you start to learn about solids and liquids and gases.”

The MCAS has helped Braintree figure out what works and what doesn’t. Middle school students were struggling with chemistry questions on the eighth-grade MCAS. The district changed the order of instruction, covering concrete science concepts in sixth grade and moving some chemistry topics to seventh. “And it worked,” Dr. Rees said. “They’re doing better on their chemistry.”
(Full disclosure: we have no idea what “concrete science concepts” are.)

Chang seems to play a familiar tune here: tests like the MCAS can be used for diagnostic purposes. But doesn’t that passage really describe something much more mundane?

Of course! Students will do better on eighth-grade chemistry questions if they’re taught chemistry topics before taking the test, instead of after (or long before). But that doesn’t mean they’re learning more, or being taught more skillfully. It just means they’re being taught at a more appropriate time.

To our ear, Dr. Feelgood is really at work in the following passage. To our ear, Chang seems to retreat one of the oldest narratives in the Big Book of Upper-Class Feel-Good Scams concerning low-income schools:
CHANG: At East Middle School, the elixir is Kristen Walsh, who teaches math to sixth, seventh and eighth graders with so-called special needs, a potpourri of learning disabilities that include dyslexia and autism. On this day she was introducing a lesson on variables and linear equations with a problem involving gym memberships.

She explained the usual math concepts of beginning algebra—the slope of a line indicating the rate of change, the y intercept where the line intersects the y axis. Where she lingered was less the math concepts but the words used in the word problem, repeatedly checking that the students understood that the “start-up fee” of one health club was the same thing as the membership fee at another.

In essence, she was teaching how to interpret a math problem as much as how to solve it.
This narrative dates to the 1960s, when the upper-class world began to write about urban schools. Perfumed readers have always loved such tales, in which it sounds like even the most disadvantaged kids are really the same as all other kids, once you execute a few very minor tricks.

In this case, we are given the impression that the most challenged kids in the Braintree schools would do just as well as everyone else, except they are unaware of some middle-class language conventions.

Those kids aren't way behind in math! They don't know what a “start-up fee” is!

Dating to the 1960s, everybody gets to feel good after reading presentations like that! Everyone gets to settle back and feel the solutions are easy.

Back to our basic facts:

If we accept the validity of NAEP math scores, Massachusetts students and teachers have shown a lot of improvement in the last fifteen years. Bay State scores have improved even more than scores in the nation as a whole.

(If we accept the validity of TIMSS math and science scores, Massachusetts students are outscoring the vast bulk of the world!)

But why have Bay State scores improved? And will New York Times journalists ever have the skills to answer such basic questions?

To his vast credit, Chang flirted with heresy yesterday, as he has done once or twice in the past. He even suggested that U.S. schools are not in a mortifying state of decline!

That said, the tribal preference seemed to linger, along with the love of familiar feel-good tales. We were left with a boatload of questions, including these:

What happens to the kids in Chelsea who don’t pass the MCAS? And what the heck happened in Texas schools, where NAEP scores also shot up?

We were also left with these questions: How well are the lowest-income kids being served by the changes in these states? And why do you never see such questions discussed on The One Liberal Channel?

Why don’t the stars on The One True Channel ever challenge the bogus boatload of gloom which Keller picked up from the corporate-scripted zeitgeist? Why don’t they ever challenge the mountains of shit which are constantly dumped on the heads of the nation’s teachers?

Why don’t they ever report the large score gains recorded by the nation’s black kids? In all their hours of clowning and fooling, why won’t they even report that?

Manifestly, they won’t discuss the way you’re being looted through massive health care over-spending. But why do these people have so much disdain for our black and Hispanic kids? Why can’t they even make themselves care about the good people who teach them?

Tomorrow: The pretense

To review all the relevant data: Click here, then click on Data Explorer.

Click on MAIN NDE, then agree to those terms. Click on State Comparisons.

At that point, you're on your own.


  1. Nice to see you're reading the story so carefully.

    Clarifying the Chelsea numbers on the 10th grade math MCAS:

    Advanced: 4%
    Proficient: 8%
    Needs Improvement: 57%
    Failing: 67%

    Advanced: 25%
    Proficient: 29%
    Needs Improvement: 28%
    Failing: 18%

    So, in 14 years, Chelsea cut the failing rate by more than two-thirds, and increased the percentage of proficient and advanced students by a factor 5.4.

    Similar gains in Boston.
    Proficient+Advanced increased from 13% to 65%.
    Failing fell from 75% to 14%

    The reason I wrote about Massachusetts was because of the TIMSS scores.

  2. Whoops, mistyped the numbers for 1998. Should be:
    Advanced: 2%
    Proficient: 8%
    Needs Improvement: 23%
    Failing: 67%

    1. Great to see Kenneth Chang participating in this thread. For what it's worth, having faithfully read the Daily Howler for over ten years now, I'd describe Bob Somerby's post as what, around here, passes for a glowing review of a newspaper report.

  3. (Full disclosure: we have no idea what “concrete science concepts” are.)

    No, full disclosure would be to admit that you have no idea about any "science concepts."

    Science concepts are generalizations about the objects we find in the universe and how they interact. And like all of their kind, such concepts are abstractions. "Concrete abstractions" is an oxymoron, so it's likely the science director meant "concrete illustrations of science concepts."

    For instance the equivalence of work and energy and the conservation of energy are "science concepts." Three children, a seesaw, and a tape measure provide a simple, concrete illustration of these concepts.

  4. What the science director meant:

    Chemistry is highly abstract. You can't see the rearranging of atoms in chemical reactions. You can't see the hydrogen bonds in water. You can't see the valence electrons. So, the sixth graders weren't ready for that, and they didn't remember it when they were tested on the eighth grade science MCAS. So the science teachers moved the chemistry to 7th grade and covered in 6th grade the more easily visualized and grasped -- what I meant by "concrete" -- science topics like geology, biology and astronomy, I believe.

  5. The error is mine; I mistook the words to be the science director's, and I misunderstood what you (I now realize, having gone back to read for comprehension) meant by "concrete."

    Sure, quantum chemistry is abstract, but simplified styrofoam models of chemical compounds are as concrete as anything in geology, biology, and astronomy. I take from your comment that you meant "concrete" to refer to familiar and discernible objects such as mountains, frogs, and the moon.

    Does the extra year's mental maturity really improve the grasp of covalent bonding? Or is it just that the subject matter is one year closer to the test?

    1. It appears that the material they moved one year further away from the test was still retained.

    2. Kids mature at different rates, but one year can make a difference. Teachers know that.

  6. Thanks to both you and Chang for edifying stories. During an era of quick-fixes, the Massachusett's "miracle" reminds us just how much can be achieved with leadership, consistency and a commitment to improvement. That's also true at Brockton High--the largest and, at one time, one of the poorest performing schools in the state. Then, a real miracle! A decade-plus of consistent leadership with an obsessive commitment to improving literacy. To read more, please see:

    The only question is: Why has Massachusett's jettisoned its winning curriculum in lieu of the untested common core...And how will that impact Massachusett's kids in the coming years?