THE PROGRESS, THE GAPS AND THE SCANDAL: The first rule of Journalist Club!


Part 1—Hiding the progress: It’s the first rule of Journalist Club: You do not talk about the progress.

Here’s the second rule of Journalist Club: You do NOT talk about the progress!

(For the eight rules of Fight Club, click here.)

Whatever! For whatever reason, Amanda Ripley doesn’t discuss the apparent national progress in math in her widely ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World.

In Ripley’s full-length, widely-praised book, the national progress has disappeared! With apologies, we’ll post her basic portrait of Minnesota, just this one last time:
RIPLEY (page 72): Of the three American students I followed, Eric was the only one who did not loathe math. Coincidence or not, Eric’s home state of Minnesota was one of only two states that came close to achieving world-class math performance. Roughly speaking, Minnesota ranked below just a dozen other countries (including Canada, Korea and Finland) in math proficiency; only Massachusetts did better in the United States.

When Eric arrived in Korea, he had a solid math background. There were lots of reasons for this: One might have been that his timing was good. Had he been born earlier, things might have turned out different.

In 1995, Minnesota fourth graders placed below average for the United States on an international math test. Despite being a mostly white, middle-class state, Minnesota was not doing well in math. When Eric started kindergarten two years later, however, the state had smarter and more focused math standards. When he was eleven, Minnesota updated those standards again, with an eye toward international benchmarks. By the time he went to high school, his peers were scoring well above average for the United States and much of the world. In 2007, Minnesota elementary students rocked a major international math test, performing at about the same level as kids in Japan.

What was Minnesota doing that other states were not? The answer was not mystical. Minnesota had started with a relatively strong education system. Then they’d made a few pragmatic changes, the kind of common sense repairs you would make if you believed math was really, truly important—and that all kids were capable of learning it.
From that passage, and from the pages which follow, many readers will get the idea that Minnesota achieved an unusual amount of progress in math during the years in question. The other states did not.

Almost surely, that impression is false. You get that impression because Ripley, in a scandalous book, followed the first rule of Journalist Club:

As elite journalists constantly do, Ripley disappeared the national progress in math.

What kind of progress did the U.S. achieve, on a national basis, during the years in question? Consider the basic data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (the NAEP), the widely-praised “gold standard” of domestic educational testing.

In the course of a full-length book, Ripley fails to mention these national score gains. We compare progress for the nation as a whole to progress in Minnesota:
Grade 4 NAEP, average math scores, 1996/2007:
United States, all students: 222/239
Minnesota, all students: 232/247

Grade 8 NAEP, average math scores, 1996/2007:
United States, all students: 269/280
Minnesota, all students: 284/292
On the NAEP scale, ten points is commonly compared to one academic year. Having said that, let us also say this:

Over the course of eleven years, the United States gained 17 points in math at the Grade 4 level. (Minnesota recorded roughly the same amount of progress.) In Grade 8 math, the nation gained eleven points in math.

At both grade levels, the national numbers bumped up a bit more on the 2011 NAEP. From 1995 through 2011, American students gained 18 points at the Grade 4 level, 14 points in Grade 8.

On its face, that’s substantial progress. But uh-oh!

Obeying the first rule of Journalist Club, Ripley never mentions this national progress in her full-length book. We’d have to say she occasionally gives the impression that no such progress has occurred.

That’s part of the scandal of Ripley’s book, a scandal we’ll attempt to define all this week. For the record, the scandal extends well beyond Ripley herself.

In all honesty, Ripley’s background didn’t qualify her to write a book on this topic. Who decided to fund her project despite her lack of expertise? Why did reviewers ignore the world-class howlers which start on page 2 of her book? Anyone exploring this scandal must explore questions like these.

Alas! Even education writers know the rule—they mustn’t mention the progress! That said, along with the apparent progress in math, we also get the gaps.

The gaps aren’t as big as they used to be. Someday, the gaps will be gone. But the “achievement gaps” still exist, affecting real lives, along with the national progress.

From the data presented below, you can see the progress in math after we “disaggregate” the NAEP scores. Overall, the apparent progress is even greater when we look at each major part of our student population.

Just look at the score gains by America’s black kids! (We’ll stick to Ripley's time frame here.) But along with the apparent progress, you can still see the gaps:
Grade 4 NAEP, average math scores, 1996/2007:
United States, white students: 231/248
United States, black students: 198/222
United States, Hispanic students: 207/227

Grade 8 NAEP, average math scores, 1996/2007:
United States, white students: 279/290
United States, black students: 239/259
United States, Hispanic students: 249/264
Given that (very rough) ten-point rule of thumb, the score gains by our black and Hispanic kids are very substantial. That said, the gaps remain, although they became smaller during those years.

For the record, Ripley seems to accept the validity of the NAEP, as do all education writers. In her first paragraph about Minnesota, she is referring to the fact that Minnesota placed second “in math proficiency,” behind only Massachusetts, on the 2007 Grade 8 NAEP.

(For details, see last Friday’s post.)

Why then did Ripley give readers the clear impression that Minnesota achieved an unusual amount of progress in math, while the other states did not? Why did she fail to consult those basic data from the NAEP?

We can’t answer those questions. We can repeat the first rule of Journalist Club: You don’t talk about the progress!

Ripley’s book is littered with scandal and intellectual squalor. Those scandals involve a great many players beyond the under-qualified author herself.

One of the scandals involves a massive lack of concern about those achievement gaps. Where do those gaps come from? How might we eliminate those gaps more quickly?

Just for a moment, forget about Ripley. If it’s scandal we’re after, why don’t our favorite millionaire “liberals” even pretend to care?

Tomorrow: Goodbye, Helsinki! The progress—and the gaps—on the TIMSS

Concerning Minnesota's average scores: Compared to the other scores in the first charts shown above, the average scores for Minnesota, 1996 only, may be a point or two high.

If you’re curious why, pursue the phrase “accomodations permitted” in the voluminous materials the NAEP presents on-line. Trust us: you will be going where no “education writer” has gone before!

For all NAEP data, start here.


  1. From the Washington Post (Nov 3, Valerie Strauss):

    “Why,” a New Jersey teacher asked Gov. Chris Christie (R), “do you continue to spread the myth that our schools and teachers are failing?”

    The teacher who asked this at a campaign rally in Somer’s Point on Saturday (ahead of Tuesday’s gubernatorial election in the state) is Melissa Tomlinson, an elementary school teacher who also runs an after-school program. Christie answered in his trademark Christie way: by yelling at her. He pointed a finger at her, as this picture shows, and shouted:

    “Because they are!”

    He also said:

    “I am tired of you people. What do you want?”

    Tomlinson’s question seems like a fair one, given that New Jersey public schools overall have long done extremely well on the metric that school reformers like Christie believe are the most telling about academic achievement: standardized test scores. You can take a look here at some of the stats. By this standard, it seems that most New Jersey teachers are doing their jobs — despite severe education budget cuts of at least $1 billion by the Christie administration (according to this Star-Ledger piece). That of course hasn’t stopped Christie, as Jersey Jazzman notes here on his useful education blog, from repeatedly attacking teachers and their unions.

    Christie has been pursuing a corporate-influenced school reform agenda that attempts to improve troubled urban schools by ignoring the problems of underfunding and poverty and instead uses methods that won’t ultimately improve student performance, such as evaluating teachers by test scores."

    1. No question about it...Chris Christie is a real tool.

  2. NEAP is not an international test.

    Ripley said that Minnesota "rocked an international test". She could have only meant the 2007 fourth-grade TIMSS test in which Minnesota's nine-year olds scored 554. This seems to have been something of an anomaly, though it was widely touted by supporters of Minnesota's "reform" supporters as proof that curriculum changes recommended by themselves were working. Minnesota's fourth graders did not participate in the 2011 tests. Ripely, who claimed she was basing her book on the PISA test scores, did not give any explanation or provide any context for her mention of Minnesota's "rocking international test scores." Since she didn't deign to even name the test, readers have to use detective skills to figure it out. The whole performance was merely geared to spinning a story agreeable to please paying for this blatant propaganda campaign, chiefly the Gates Foundation. (It occurs to me that the Gates foundation may really be a front for CIA or NSA, as the Ford Foundation was revealed to be during the Cultural Cold War of the 1950s. All this talk about national security, defense, and international competitiveness, why does the Gates foundation care about that?)

  3. On TIMSS in 2011 MInnesota's fourth graders did not participate.
    North Carolina's fourth graders did participate, however, and they scored also 554. However, broken down by race, the white students in the Tar Heel state scored 577 and the black 512 (slightly above average, which is 500).

    This begs the question as to how important 4th-grade math is to begin with. If anyone wants to see the 2011 4th-grade TIMSS scores they are on page 39 (the last page) of this PDF:

    So much for the fourth grade. In 2011, the 8th-grade TIMSS scores for the USA as a whole, and Minnesota and North Carolina in particular, are above those of Finland.

    As Somerby has pointed out the current NAEP and TIMSS are being compared against each other. This is more informative, but also confusing. The welter of charts and figures means there is plenty of scope for interested parties to lie with statistics, as the NY Times has blatantly and unethically been doing -- in support of the privatizing/outsourcing agenda. --E

  4. And, I might add, when it comes to fighting unionization, there is no depth to which the wealthy and privileged will not sink. - E

  5. Once again, Bob Somerby points out just what a charlatan the "talented" oh-so-privileged Amanda Ripley is.

    In this piece, he raises important questions. For example, who funded this work (The Smartest Kids) by Ripley? And why are journalists so willing to look past her evident errors and omissions?

    I'd add to this, why does Ripley pass herself off as an "investigative journalist when, clearly, she is not? And why does Ripley say her book is chock-full of "groundbreaking research" when it isn't?

    Amanda Ripley is what she is....