EXPERTS, PROFESSORS AND JOURNOS: What kind of “expert” reasons this way?


Part 4—Truly horrific work:
Are seniors in American high schools doing less well in math?

In theory, it’s an important question. In practice, it’s clear that nobody cares. For various reasons, it can also be a tricky question—a difficult question to answer.

Are seniors doing less well in math? In theory, the question’s important. For that reason, we’ve spent several days trying to puzzle it out—more days than we had planned.

It’s also important to understand something else. It’s important to understand the way such questions get churned at our biggest establishment news orgs.

Routinely, our journalists turn to a stable of “educational experts” as they produce their scripted reports about the allegedly floundering public schools. All too often, these experts seem to serve as conduits of establishment narrative, sometimes in defiance of basic obvious facts.

Michael Petrilli is an establishment educational expert. For the record, he’s head of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, “an ideologically conservative American nonprofit education policy think tank with offices in Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio, and Dayton, Ohio.”

(Unless you read the Washington Post, in which case the Fordham Institute is simply an “educational think tank.” Whatever!)

Are seniors in American high schools doing less well in math? On September 3, Petrilli explored this general question in a blog post bearing this title:

“Why is high school achievement flat?”

In our view, Petrilli’s blog post is horrific—a moral and/or intellectual disgrace. On the brighter side, it helps us see the way our “educational experts” routinely function inside the hall of mirrors we call our “public discourse.”

What makes that blog post such a mess? Yesterday, we started to answer that question. Today, let’s run through the basics.

In fairness to Petrilli, he seems to understand several things about the interpretation of test scores. In particular, he understands some of the problems people encounter when they try to interpret Grade 12 scores—when they try to evaluate progress, over time, at the Grade 12 level.

What does Petrilli understand? Consider three basic points:

The SATs weren’t designed for that purpose: Petrilli seems to understand a basic fact—the SATs were not designed for that purpose!

More specifically, the SATs were not designed to permit comparisons of America’s high school seniors over time. In fact, the SATs weren't designed to measure populations at all.

As we explained last week, the SATs were designed to measure the achievement of individuals. The program doesn’t make any attempt to test representative samples of the Grade 12 student population—not this year, not last year, not ten years ago.

Petrilli almost seems to understand this fact. As we noted yesterday, his blog post starts like this:
PETRILLI (9/3/15): The latest SAT scores are out today, and as I remarked to Nick Anderson at the Washington Post, education reform appears to be hitting a wall in high school.

In truth, we already knew this. The SATs aren’t even the best gauge—not all students take them, and those who do are hardly representative.
Question: What kind of expert reasons that way, in whatever field?

Petrilli understands that the students who take the SATs are “hardly representative” of the Grade 12 student population as a whole. On this basis, he makes a weird statement:

The SATs aren’t the best gauge of that population, our expert weirdly says.

Good God! Because they’re “hardly representative,” the tested students can’t safely be used as a gauge at all! Beyond that, Petrilli surely knows that the demographic blend of the tested students has been changing every year, in ways which tend to lower average scores and doom attempts at comparisons over time.

He knows that, but he doesn’t say so. What kind of “expert” does this?

A statistical complexity involving Grade 12 NAEP: Petrilli is also aware of a statistical complexity involving Grade 12 scores on the NAEP. As we noted yesterday, he explains this statistical problem in the passage shown below.

Never mind what he’s explaining here. His basic point is clear:
PETRILLI: One explanation could be America’s rising graduation rate. Students who would have previously dropped out are now staying in school and remaining in the NAEP sample, thereby dragging down the scores. That sounds plausible to me...
Below, we’ll look at the fuller passage, which we regard as horrific. That said, Petrilli seems to understand a possible statistical complexity which affects the utility of Grade 12 score comparisons over time. To wit:

As our national drop-out rate declines, lower-achieving students who once dropped out are staying in school through Grade 12.

Educationally, that’s a positive trend. But over time, the lower drop-out rate probably tends to “drag down [average NAEP] scores.”

“That sounds plausible to me,” Petrilli says. Below, we’ll marvel at what he says next.

Simpson’s Paradox: Petrilli is even aware of the role played by “Simpson’s Paradox.” This affects analysis of test scores at all grade levels, not just in Grade 12:
PETRILLI: Or maybe it’s Simpson’s Paradox at work. That would suggest that all racial groups are doing better, but because lower-scoring Latinos are replacing whites over time, our overall scores are declining.
Simpson’s Paradox refers to a counterintuitive state of affairs. Within a given population, every group can improve its average performance over time—but the overall average performance may remain unchanged, or even go down.

In the realm of test scores, this will happen if lower-scoring groups constitute a larger portion of the overall group over time, as has been the case with American public school testing.

This helps explain why average SAT scores have dropped in recent years. Petrilli understands this obvious fact, but he didn’t mention it in his blog post.

Petrilli understands these things! At the same time, he’s talking about a nation whose Grade 12 NAEP scores have been on the rise in the most recent period available for review.

According to the NAEP, high school seniors have been doing better in math! As we’ve shown you in the past two days, these are the actual score gains:
Gains in average scores, 2005-2013
Main NAEP, Grade 12 math
National public schools

White students: 4.32 points
Black students: 5.24 points
Hispanic students: 7.67 points
Asian-American students: 11.08 points
American Indian/Native Alaskan students: 9.48 points
Judged by normal measures, those score gains in math are substantial. And uh-oh:

As we’ll show you tomorrow, those score gains are actually larger than the score gains in Grade 4 over the same eight-year period, the most recent period for which we have NAEP data.

(The largest score gains occurred in Grade 8. All data tomorrow.)

The Grade 12 score gains are actually larger than the gains in Grade 4! And yet, Petrilli writes the following, under a headline which declares that high school achievement is flat:
PETRILLI: ...NAEP shows respectable gains for younger students, especially in fourth grade and particularly in math. Yet these early gains seem to evaporate as kids get older.
How did our educational expert come up with that highlighted claim? In his blog post, he made two unfortunate plays, each of which helped him reach the gloomy conclusion which is currently “hot.”

First, Petrilli jumped to a different study! In discussing NAEP scores from the fourth and twelfth grades, he has been talking about the so-called “Main NAEP” study, which tests students in Grades 4, 8 and 12.

For the record, it’s clear that that is the study Petrilli has been discussing. Early on, he offers this gloomy claim:

“Twelfth-grade NAEP: Flat.”

As we noted yesterday, Petrilli doesn’t link to any NAEP scores when he offers this assessment. Instead, he links to a news report by a “staff writer” for the Christian Science Monitor—a largely bungled report about the release of score from the 2013 “Main NAEP.”

Plainly, Petrilli has been discussing scores from the Main NAEP. But uh-oh! Grade 12 math scores on the Main NAEP actually haven’t been flat.

In math, the Grade 12 score gains seem substantial; they’re larger than the gains at Grade 4! That said, how did Petrilli support the claim we’ve posted above?

By switching to a different study! This is his fuller passage:
PETRILLI: ...NAEP shows respectable gains for younger students, especially in fourth grade and particularly in math. Yet these early gains seem to evaporate as kids get older.

Here’s what that looks like using data from the long-term trend NAEP for three recent student cohorts. Progress at ages nine and thirteen hasn’t translated into progress at age seventeen.
In that passage, Petrilli switches—without saying so—from the “Main NAEP” to a different NAEP study, the so-called “Long-Term Trend Assessment.”

The Long-Term Trend Assessment tests 9-year-old students, 13-year-old students and 17-year-old students, without regard to what grade they’re in. (Warning! Some 17-year-old students will be sophomores or juniors.) It uses a different math test than the one employed in the “Main NAEP.”

The Long-Term Trend Assessment is a different, parallel study. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be consulted in a wide array of ways. But it doesn’t specifically test high school seniors, as the Main NAEP specifically does. And for today, we’ll ask you to notice this:

When Petrilli switches to the Long-Term Trend Assessment, he looks at changes in scores over an 18-year period. He looks at score gains from 1994 through 2012, the last year for which data are available.

It’s true! Over that 18-year span, score gains were substantially larger among the two sets of younger students than among the 17-year-old students. Here’s the obvious problem:

Eighteen years is a fairly long time! To what extent might changing drop-out rates have “dragged down” average scores among 17-year-old students during that lengthy period?

For ourselves, we have no idea—and Petrilli doesn’t seem to care! Below, you see the fuller passage in which he describes the possible effect on average scores of changing drop-out rates.

We’ll ask one question at this time. What kind of “expert,” in any field, would ever reason like this:
PETRILLI: One explanation could be America’s rising graduation rate. Students who would have previously dropped out are now staying in school and remaining in the NAEP sample, thereby dragging down the scores. That sounds plausible to me, but to my knowledge, nobody has proved it empirically. Budding education policy scholars out there: Who is game to tackle that methodological challenge?
What kind of “expert,” in any field, would ever reason like that? Here’s what Petrilli does, and fails to do, in that ridiculous passage:

Did our declining drop-out rate “drag down” average scores at the 17-year-old level over that 18-year time span? To Petrilli, that “sounds plausible.”

Having said that, he also says this—to his knowledge, no one has proven that this occurred.

Of course, this seems to mean that no one has proven that it didn’t occur! In other words, Michael Petrilli doesn’t know if the smaller gains among the 17-year-old students, over that lengthy time span, resulted from that “plausible” cause.

Petrilli doesn’t know if that happened; we can’t tell you either. That said, we didn’t run to the Washington Post and use those cherry-picked data to say, in Best Approved Elite Reform Fashion, that progress is stagnant at the Grade 12 level—even as the more recent math scores from the Main NAEP seem to show substantial progress occurring in Grade 12.

Petrilli’s blog post is horrific. How absurd does it get?

At one point, its author—an educational expert—says the SAT is no good for the task at hand. So he tells us to consider the ACT instead!

What kind of “expert,” in any field, would ever produce such ludicrous work? We’ll try to answer that question tomorrow.

We’ll also show you the most recent data from all three grades—Grades 4, 8 and 12—tested in the Main NAEP. The Grade 12 score gains seem substantial—and they’re larger than those at Grade 4!

How would our “expert” explain such a thing? Would he just keep churning script?

Tomorrow: A deeply important disclosure


  1. I think today's post answers the questions raised by KZ yesterday, except for his absurd complaint about minor changes in Somerby's wording over time (excessively literal again, KZ).

    You can complain about the rough "rule of thumb" but here Petrilli calls the same size gains substantial at one grade level and flat at the other. You don't need to worry about how those score gains related to improvement to see that Petrilli is playing games to advance his narrative.

    You also don't have to think about education and test scores at all to see what KZ's narrative is here. That he is now arguing in service of conservative attacks on the achievements of teachers and their students suggests he is another conservative troll, like Cicero, David in CA and not a few anonymous commenters (perhaps redundant).

    1. No, my dear friend @ 1:17, today's post does not answer the questions we raised last night.

      Our first question was, "Has anyone BOB has quoted in this series said American high school seniors are doing less well in math?"

      If you think this post answers that question, we sadly must disagree.

      That said we are glad to see Bob ask almost the identical question to start off today's post as he asked yesteday:

      Today: "Are seniors in American high schools doing less well in math?"

      We will repeat our question exactly as written:

      "Has anyone BOB has quoted in this series said American high school seniors are doing less well in math?"

      Nobody bothered to answer that yesterday. BOB certainly added nothing in this post to answer it today.

      So we challenge you directly @ 1:17. Go thorough Bob's series and the articles to which he links. Find someone who said Amercian seniors are doing less well in math.

      While you are looking for the person who suggested seniors are doing less well in math, look for any scores Bob has put forward to answer this question: Are our seniors doing less poorly in reading?

      Finally, you have suggested a narrative for us that says we serve someone else's cause by noting your OTB is a phony. We are not the one who routinely denigrates entire professions, persons of ideological viewpoints or belittles people based on their age. That would be your BOB. We think HE is stupid to do that. We think YOU are stupid to follow. That implies nothing about us or our views about anyone else. It implies nothing about what we seem to feel about BOB and his believers. You don't have to read anything into it. It doesn't seem to be our view. It is our view. Literally.

      Meanwhile we continue to work on Part 2. We hope to answer the question we raised about Bob's constantly evolving questions in Part 1 soon.

      KZ of Doom

    2. What do you think it means when an expert says gains in early years are not maintained and expresses concern that reforms are not working? Your excessive literalism is a drag.

    3. It means gains in early years are not maintained. It means reforms are not working.

      Do you think that because we answered your question and you won't answer ours means we are saying you are doing less well in answering? Or do you think we literally mean your ability to defend BOB has stagnated?


    4. KZ, you are dealing with a person fluent in Bobspeak, where words don't mean what they say and say what they mean until interpreted for us by a true Bobfan.

      Until told what Bob really, really meant as opposed to what he actually wrote, we stand accused of "excessive literalism."

      Hence, even Bob and his loyal fans stand confused by even the simplest declarative sentences which quite often to them sound like they were translated from the original Norwegian by native speakers of Urdu.

  2. What kind of experts reason this way? Conservative experts.

  3. I don't agree that Cicero and David in CA are trolls. They just disagree with us.

    1. I just disagree with you.

    2. They are trolls because they are never influenced by anything others say, even when they are proven factually incorrect.

    3. cicero is a known paid troll. You naivete is refreshing though.

    4. OK, let's compromise. Cicero is a troll; David is sincere but misguided.

    5. David is a troll too. He keeps repeating the same tired conservative talking points with no evidence he heard anything said to him. They seem to be generated by the noise machine, not everyday thoughts or concerns of a conservative person.

    6. Here's poor, misguided David's latest sincere, misguided support of now-proven liar Carly Fiorina:

      "The are times when one has to trust other people. This isn't one of them. One source supports Fiorina, saying,
      As for Fiorina’s quote, she is likely referring to the entirety of the 10 videos, including the seventh video released by the Center for Medical Progress. Watch the full video for yourself. It does, in fact, show a fully formed fetus, heart beating and legs kicking. And it shows this while Holly O’Donnell, a former organ harvester who worked for StemExpress at a Planned Parenthood affiliate, graphically discuss the harvesting of a brain from a baby whose heart was beating.
      Bob could find out whether Fiorina's claim is true by watching the videos himself."

      Maybe you can straighten him out for us, Caesar.


    7. blowup, is David responsible for the Federalist?

  4. "What kind of “expert,” in any field, would ever reason like that?"

    I would say a very sound mind would withhold judgment on what "sounds plausible" until there is empirical evidence to support it. And Petrilli clearly says there is none, so the oft-repeated line that dumb kids who would have dropped out before are dragging down the test scores at age 17 remains unproven.

    And to give you a classic example. It once not only "sounded plausible" but it also "looked damned plausible" that the entire universe revolved around the earth.

    Then those pesky scientists with their new fangled telescopes but that whole danged notion to the test. And guess what? The once-plausible wasn't so plausible after all.

    1. And a further notion worth looking deeper at. Those high school drop outs hadn't dropped out in the fourth grade. So you actually had a stronger cohort of fourth graders taking the test when they became seniors.

      In other words, you now have all fourth graders and all former fourth graders eight years later. You don't have all fourth graders and all former fourth graders minus the dropouts eight years later.

      Which raises the question of why fourth grade gains are lost in the same cohort following eight years.

    2. Regression to the mean.

  5. "The SATs aren’t the best gauge of that population, our expert weirdly says.

    Good God! Because they’re “hardly representative,” the tested students can’t safely be used as a gauge at all!"

    Bob Somerby 9/17/15

    "SAT's are a limited measure of national achievement"

    Bob Somerby 9/1/2005

    Good God! In just ten years SAT went from limited measure to unsafe!

    1. Somerby is talking about national achievement. That is broader than academic performance or student achievement in mathematics. What exactly do you think "limited measure" means. Taken out of context, the phrase could even be understatement. But why are you still fixating on Somerby's writing style and ignoring the point in his essays?

    2. No, you sad sack Somerby apologist. Somerby in 2005 was using SAT scores going up to argue there was not crisis in schools suggested by a high school teacher writing to the New York Times in response to a Bob Herbert column.

      Herbert used the term crisis because, in Herbert's words, "By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students. Across the nation, only 15 percent of low-income fourth graders achieved proficiency in reading in 2003, compared to 41 percent of nonpoor students." A high school teacher wrote in to agree with Herbert that there was a crisis. She blamed the lack of literacy in homes.

      And you know what educational "expert critic" Bob Somerby used to refuted that concern? Did you guess SAT scores? You know, the test that "can't safely be used as a gauge at all."

      Rising SAT scores from a test given to self selected high schoolers. Wrote Somerby:

      "The teacher suggests that this “crisis” is growing as American homes get too many TVs. But as the Times reported just yesterday, national SAT scores hit an all-time high in math last year, and the verbal score has risen four points in the past decade. SATs are a limited measure of national achievement because only college-bound students take them. But did Herbert describe a generalized (and growing) “crisis?” The claim is hard to square with those numbers, despite what this highly-qualified teacher says.

      When they are up, (four pooints in a decade!) those SAT scores are useful for Bob Somerby. When they are down, (seven points in one year) only a charlatan doing the bidding of billionaires would mention them.

      Somerby taken out of context? No. Somerby displaying his basic character.

    3. He stated the warning that they are a limited measure because of selection bias. Should he have started a discussion of NAEP scores? He refuted a broad claim of crisis with a broad and imprecise measure.

      You claim he argues out of two sides of his mouth because he uses evidence whose precision he later criticizes, but his point, that improvement is being ignored, is consistent.

      Petrilli is an education expert making a more technical argument. It is appropriate to hold him to a higher standard than a teacher making a sweeping, inaccurate claim.

    4. We find ourselves chuckling at your response @ 11:29, not so much for what it includes, but for what it missed. We went back to the post in question because we were intrigued by the phrase used by BOB "as the Times reported just yesterday."

      Sure enough the OTB linked to a 2005 New York Times article on the release of annual SAT scores. We followed that link. You should too:

      SAT Math Scores at Record High, but Those on the Verbal Exam Are Stagnant

      So said the NY Times headline!

      Did BOB devote a whole series to attacking that work a decade ago? No. But you are right about Bob's character.

      Bob was praising the big verbal score gains when they were actually characterized thusly:

      "verbal scores remained flat, well below their historic high, the College Board said yesterday.

      The score on the math test was 520, of a possible 800, up two points from the previous year. The verbal score was 508, the same as in the previous year. This score is the highest on the verbal test since 1986 but far below the record of 543 in 1967, when the College Board began keeping track, and again in 1968."

      In this post, and indeed in this series, you would think verbal skills were unimportant. Reading is not FUNdamental.

      In fact, reading has virtually disappeared. One might say, except for one question in one post, Bob Somerby would rather walk across the Bay Bridge than discuss reading scores.

      Which we plan to discuss in Part 2. We had planned it for today, but it seems BOB is extending the series to Friday. So we'll wait until then.


    5. Reading depends on childhood language experiences that happen (or don't) before school age. Reading is much harder to improve than math. This isn't Somerby's fault.

    6. Yep. Based on that famous Kansas study that got shredded upon peer review for both its methodology and the broad conclusions it reached.

      Certainly it is important for parents who read to their infants and talk to them as their brains get wired and their language skills develop.

      But it is quite something else to say that "Reading DEPENDS (your word, emphasis added) on childhood language experiences that happen (or don't) before school age. . ."

      Quite a convenient way to pass the buck isn't it? And a pretty good excuse to give up on kids pretty quick, even "before school age" since the die is already cast.

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