Supplemental: Times reporter fails writing test!


Who the Sam Hill is Kate Taylor:
Who the Sam Hill is Kate Taylor?

The analysts came to us with that question very early this morning. They'd read Taylor's news report about public school students across the state of New York.

Taylor's report appears in today's New York Times.

Understandably, the analysts were offended by the report—offended and puzzled. "If not for bad explanations," one of the youngsters cried, "we'd have no explanations at all!"

Who the Hill is Taylor? Briskly, we gathered the data:

Taylor graduated from Harvard in 2001 with a BA in literature. By 2007, Slate was describing her as "the arts reporter at the New York Sun and the editor of an anthology of essays about anorexia, Going Hungry, which will be published next spring."

The anthology was published, then was reviewed in the Times. In 2010, Taylor spent six weeks at the Wall Street Journal before being stolen away by the Times in the course of a hiring war.

Five years later, Taylor is writing about public schools for our allegedly smartest newspaper. In her new report, she displays the chaos a Harvard degree can provide, aided by fourteen years of experience.

"If not for bad explanations, we'd have no explanations at all?" Is it possible that our disillusioned young analyst was right?

Let's take a look at the record!

In hard copy, Taylor's report appears on the first page of today's "New York" section. She begins in an entertaining way, as entertainment values require.

Taylor writes about statewide algebra scores. Hard-copy headlines included:
TAYLOR (12/1/15): Algebra Scores Spur Regents To Reconsider State Exam / Panel Studying if the Bar To Pass Was Set Too High

Here is the thorny math problem facing New York State education officials:
If the percentage of students passing the Algebra I exam falls to 63 percent from 72 percent, and the passing grade is scheduled to increase by 14 points in coming years, should the test be made easier?
Entertainingly, the Harvard grad spoofed the stereotypical algebra question! She also seemed to have cited a couple of facts:

Last year, 72 percent of students in New York State passed some sort of Algebra I exam. This year, only 63 percent passed.

Meanwhile, the passing grade on the exam "is scheduled to increase by 14 points in coming years." That said, it sounds like officials may decide to make the test "easier" in some unspecified way.

So far, no bones had been broken. New York Times readers might even have known that Taylor was writing about the Regents Exam, which high school students have to pass to attain their diplomas (or something).

So far, we'd been allowed to enjoy some good solid fun. The confusion began when the Harvard grad tried to offer a real explanation about the changing scores on the algebra test.

We read these next paragraphs quite a few times. Because they appeared in the New York Times, they were clear as mud:
TAYLOR (continuing directly): In 2013, concerned that high school graduates were not prepared for college, the State Board of Regents revamped the exams students must pass to graduate, starting with the English and Algebra I tests. The board decided that, where previously students needed a score of only 65 on a 100-point scale to pass, in coming years they would have to score at a “college- and career-ready” level, which this year was deemed to be a 79 in English, and a 74 in Algebra.

The result: On the 2015 Algebra I exam, which was supposed to align with the new Common Core curriculum, the percentage of students passing fell to 63 percent, down nine points from the old exam last year. And less than a quarter of students scored at the college-ready level.
In New York City, which has a concentration of poor and minority students, only 52 percent of students passed the 2015 exam, down from 65 percent the previous year on the old exam. Just 16 percent reached the “college-ready” level.
As the angry analysts watched, we read that passage again and again. Soon enough, we were fighting back tears!

After reading that passage several times, we struggled to answer some basic questions. Frankly, Taylor's work struck us as a mess:
Questions we struggled to answer
Was the 2015 Algebra I exam the same as the 2014 Algebra I exam? That is to say, were the questions the same? (It sounded like the questions had been changed, but we weren't thoroughly sure.)

What score did students need to pass the test this year? Was it the same as last year's passing score?

According to Taylor, fewer than a quarter of students "scored at the college-ready level" this year. It sounded like they needed a minimum score of 74.

That said, 63 percent of students passed the test this year. What minimum score did they attain? Doesn't the article seem to say that they needed a 74?
Try as we might, we couldn't quite answer those questions. Did students across the state of New York know less algebra this year? Or were they simply taking a test with harder questions?

Is it possible that the algebra test was the same, but students were required to get a higher score? After struggling to comprehend, we still couldn't answer for sure.

Here at THE HOWLER, we're actually curious about such questions. At the New York Times, they typically seem to pretend. Did Mother and Father send Taylor to Harvard to churn out confusing dreck of this type? Does anyone care about public schools, or is it all just a sham?

Eventually, in paragraph 8, we may have received a hint about the state of play in New York. The highlighted passages seem to make one point clear:
TAYLOR: Passing the old algebra Regents was already a struggle for many students. An analysis by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that, among students who entered city high schools in 2010, three in 10 failed the exam on their first try. Students who failed the first time had to retake it an average of twice more to graduate. To help those students, schools had to devote more resources to teaching remedial algebra, rather than other, higher level math courses.

Before the new exam was given, the Regents had said they intended to set the grading so the same number of students passed as had before, but that did not happen.
Based upon those highlighted passages, it seems fairly clear that a new, amended algebra test has replaced the original test. And not only that! According to Taylor, state education officials had "intended to set the grading so the same number of students passed as had before."

As Taylor notes, that didn't happen. Here's the question that came to our heads when we read that passage:

What did state officials do as they tried to make the new exam equivalent to the old exam? (As they tried to make it match the old exam in its difficulty level?) Competent test developers can create equivalent tests through the pre-testing of test items. Our question:

Did the Regents engage in such skilled behavior? Or did the Regents just guess?

It didn't seem to occur to our Harvard grad to ask that basic question. As the fifty different states keep churning out different testing programs, competency questions ought to be very basic. But our Harvard grad doesn't seem to know squat about testing, and she seems to care less. Five years ago, the New York Times fought a hiring war for this journalistic star!

Who the Sam Hill is Kate Taylor? you ask. We're going to ask a different question.

Who the Sam Hill is Taylor's editor? Who permits such incompetent work to appear in our brainiest newspaper? Or is that newspaper just a fraud, devoted to bad explanation?

In fairness, Taylor's first paragraph did provide good solid fun. When it comes to public school topics, that—and the promotion of elite script—seems to be what the Times is there for.

Alas! Some students may have failed Algebra I, but Taylor failed her writing test! The difference is, they're high school kids—and the New York Times promotes itself as our brainiest big major very-smart newspaper.


  1. Another possible problem: The article calls these "the exams students must pass to graduate." That may be correct today, for all I know. However, when I was in high school in New York State in the late 1950's, you didn't need to pass Regents Exams to graduate. If you did pass them, you received a so-called "Regents Diploma". However, even if you didn't pass the Regents Exams, or didn't even take them, you would graduate as long as you passed your required courses.

  2. He's right. That really is appalling editing. That's the sort of thing the public editor ought to be commenting on,

    1. We were too dumb and ineffective to ever demand better editing. We still can't bring ourselves to understand the way our favorite newspapers have muddled the topic of public education.

      They still say things like the ones shown above. We're too hopeless and soft to react.

  3. Oh lord, algebra. One of my favorite movies lines of all time, has been censored, maybe even on the DVD. In the movie "Peggy Sue got married" a businesswoman goes back in time thirty years (somehow - she faints at her high school reunion and when she wakes up, she is in her 18 year old body). She has to take an algebra test (as part of her normal high school life) and completely wiffs on it. She remembers NO algebra. The teacher starts lecturing her and she stands up and says "I happen to know that algebra will be of no use to me in the future. I speak from experience."

    Watch that movie on TV and that line is gone. I say this as a guy that loved algebra. I am so much of a math geek that I got a worthless university degree in math. I simply do NOT believe that kids need to know as much algebra as some people seem determined to push.

    That seems to be the unspoken presupposition in this whole mess. "Everybody needs to know algebra". Prove it.

    1. The fact that in your adult life you may not need to know algebra, or French, or Latin, or how to tie a shoe (because you will always wear slip-on shoes), doesn't of course mean that these are useless things to know. How can a 16 or 17 year old know for certain what career they will go into? Some will know that they are not bright enough to go into certain intellectually or technically demanding careers, but some won't have decided if they want to be engineers, or architects, or composers, or office managers. The point of high school and college education is to provide you with a base of knowledge that will a) help you decide what career to pursue, and b) enable you to be a competent citizen and human being. Just because I may not use algebra (or calculus) in my job doesn't mean I wasn't enriched by learning both of them. I also don't really need to know geography in my job, but I would feel like an idiot if I couldn't find Egypt on a map, and so should everyone.

  4. If you don't know algebra, you can't begin to understand general relativity.

  5. Not to mention the lousy arithmetic. Passing grade this year was 65. 'College level' this year in Math was 74. That is ... count the fingers, carry the 1... NINE more than this year, not 14 more as she claims. The fourteen shows up if she is comparing the 65 in Algebra with the 'college level' 79 in... ENGLISH.

  6. A friend sent me this article. I read it and didn't understand what had happened, just some vague idea that something about the test changed and schools were in a panic.

    Just re-read the article and gave it the old college try. This time---after considerably more effort---I gotten from the article that something about the test changed and schools are in a panic.

    The whole article could have been replaced by a sentence or two.

    1. And is because so-called higher standards. Got *that* from the article on both readings.

  7. Well, @ 6:11 since you have already wasted time with five sentences, why not give it the old college try and give us the sentence or two to replace the article.