Part 5—The largest achievement gaps yet: Some people are going to say that we saved the most daunting for last.
That wasn't part of a plan! That said, we're going look at the largest achievement gaps yet today—and we aren't going to burden ourselves with invidious, artificial comparisons.
We won't be comparing a high-income county in Massachusetts to a low-income midwestern city. We won't be reporting scores by different "racial groups," or by kids whose families have different incomes.
We're going to do something much simpler today. We're going to see how higher-achieving students across the nation performed in math on the Naep as compared to their lower-achieving peers, full stop.
The gaps we'll see will be very large. But first, that one kid in L.A.
Long ago and far away, the Los Angeles Times did something very unusual. Just as Jonathan Kozol once took the time to discuss an 8-year-old child named Stephen, the famous newspaper took the time to publish a detailed report about a decent, deserving kid who couldn't pass Algebra 1.
She took the course six or seven times. She failed it every time.
Duke Helfand's 3200-word, front-page report was smart, informative and humane—and it dealt with a deserving low-income kid. For all those reasons, it was wholly ignored by the liberal world.
Helfand's report should have won awards, but it dealt with the kind of kid we liberals don't care about. The report appeared in 2006. Helfand started like this:
HELFAND (1/30/06): Each morning, when Gabriela Ocampo looked up at the chalkboard in her ninth-grade algebra class, her spirits sank."Of all the obstacles to graduation, algebra was the most daunting," Helfand said as he continued. He quoted Superintendent Roy Romer saying this:
There she saw a mysterious language of polynomials and slope intercepts that looked about as familiar as hieroglyphics.
She knew she would face another day of confusion, another day of pretending to follow along. She could hardly do long division, let alone solve for x.
"I felt like, 'Oh, my God, what am I going to do?' " she recalled.
Gabriela failed that first semester of freshman algebra. She failed again and again—six times in six semesters. And because students in Los Angeles Unified schools must pass algebra to graduate, her hopes for a diploma grew dimmer with each F.
Midway through 12th grade, Gabriela gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School.
Her story might be just a footnote to the Class of 2005 except that hundreds of her classmates, along with thousands of others across the district, also failed algebra.
"[Algebra 1] triggers dropouts more than any single subject. I think it is a cumulative failure of our ability to teach math adequately in the public school system."
Romer, a former governor of Colorado, may have had his head up his ascot. In the case of this particular student, the system's "failure to teach math" had surfaced long before she failed Algebra 1 a ludicrous six or seven times, through four ludicrous years of educational malpractice.
The "failure to teach math," if that's what it was, seemed to have surfaced long before that.
This particular high school student "could hardly do long division," or at least so Helfand reported. This suggests that a failure to communicate had started long before she was crazily told to take Algebra 1 over and over again.
The story told in Helfand's report is arguably a story of educational malpractice. The statement by Romer—he had no background in education when he took the superintendent's job—may tell a story about the frequent, remarkable cluelessness of our "educational leaders," even of our "education experts."
That said, the most obvious story Helfand told is a story of giant achievement gaps. The story goes something like this:
By the time that deserving kid took Algebra 1 in the ninth grade, many of her classmates across the country—even right there in L.A.—had breezed through Algebra 1 in the seventh or eighth grade. By way of contrast, she couldn't pass the course at all, through four years of attempts.
How big are the achievement gaps across the United States? Let's forget about individual school districts and talk about our student population at a whole.
More specifically, let's talk about the way they scored in math on the 2011 Naep.
We're choosing that year because we have the data at hand, and because nothing of any particular substance has changed since then. Let's talk about the achievement gaps which obtained among all students, all across the country, on those 2011 tests.
Let's start with Grade 8 math. The average score nationwide that year was 283.85. That represented a giant improvement over the testing in 1991, when the average score was 262.55.
(Those are the scores for all U.S. schools, public as well as private. The average score for public school kids in 2011 was only slightly lower—282.73.)
In 2011, the average score nationwide was 283.85. That said, good God! Below, you see the scores which were achieved at the 90th and 10th percentiles—and you see a gigantic gap:
Grade 8 math, 2011 NaepTo peruse those data, and data from earlier years, click here, scroll to pages 34-35.
All schools, public and private:
Average score: 283.85
90th percentile: 329
10th percentile: 237
Say what? An eighth-grader who scored at the 90th percentile that year outscored her counterpart at the 10th percentile by a walloping 92 points! Applying that very rough "ten-point rule," this represents an achievement gap of something resembling nine years!
Meanwhile, remember how percentiles work. Presumably, something like ten percent of that year's eighth graders scored higher than that 90th percentile score. Meanwhile, something like ten percent of that year's eighth-graders scored lower than 237.
We're talking about a gigantic gap between large numbers of eighth graders. Do such notions even make sense? Could there possibly be a nine-year achievement gap by the end of eighth grade?
At such points, the utility of the ten-point rule may start breaking down. But please consider the following, keeping Helfand's report in mind:
Some kids, by the end of eighth grade, may know little math at all. They may be deeply confused, as was the case with Helfand's subject, who "could hardly do long division."
Other kids—in Lexington, Massachusetts, let's say—breezed through Algebra 1 years before, then hit the harder stuff. They're years beyond traditional "grade level," and they're eager for more. These are the basic facts of life within our large, sprawling nation.
We've just shown you the largest achievement gap yet! So you'll know, here are the corresponding data from Grade 4 math in 2011. Click here, scroll to pages 9-10:
Grade 4 math, 2011 NaepBetween the 90th and 10th percentiles, a giant gap obtained.
All schools, public and private:
Average score: 240.68
90th percentile: 276
10th percentile: 203
Based on Helfand's report, Gabriella Ocampo would have been in the eighth grade in 2001. Scores were lower on the Naep that year, but the gaps were still very large, as you can see at the link above.
While some kids powered far ahead, that deserving kid in L.A. "could hardly do long division." Somewhere along the way, her math instruction had almost completely washed out.
Almost surely, she would have scored at or below the 10th percentile that year. But while her math learning had somehow washed out, there were plenty of kids, all over the nation, who were performing light-years beyond her level.
A giant achievement gap obtained, and still does today. But so what? Along comes Arne Duncan, saying that all our eighth grade kids should be taught the same eighth grade math!
Nor is it just Duncan! Amazingly, astoundingly even, the whole American education establishment is still somehow locked in a world where eighth graders are all pretty much alike—Bobby and Betty and Billy and Suzy and all the other kids.
Because they're all in eighth grade, they should all be taught the same eighth grade math! That includes the kids, all over the country, who are performing at the upper reaches of our vast achievement gaps. It includes the kids, like Helfand's subject, who can barely do any math at all, and are going to drop out of school when they flunk Algebra 1.
Duncan's recent column in the Washington Post made amazingly little actual sense. Incoherently, he attributed 47 years of improving scores on the Naep to "education reforms" of the past ten years. Then too, he also said this:
He said that Gabriella Ocampo, and other deserving kids like her, should be confronted with the same "learning standards" as a bunch of whiz kids in Lexington, Mass.—or up around Silicon Valley, in potent school districts like these:
Where the average student standsThose data come from Professor Reardon's recent study. And remember—those years above grade level are the average for grades 3-8 inclusive. Presumably, if we consider grade 8 alone, the average years above grade level would be higher.
Selected California school districts:
Cupertino Union School District
Median family income: $150,000
3.1 years above grade level
Los Altos School District
Median family income: $205,000
3.2 years above grade level
Saratoga Union School District
Median family income: $213,000
3.1 years above grade level
Palo Alto Unified School District
Median family income: $188,000
2.5 years above grade level
There are high-scoring students right there in L.A., of course. But around the country, in high-income districts, there are many more.
There are also lots of students like Gabriella, who could barely do long division when she entered high school. Along come our educational leaders to say that they should all be taught the same Grade 8 math, from the same "learning standards."
We leave you today with a question. What sort of standards do we maintain for our educational leaders and our "education experts?" Do we, do our newspapers and cable news stars, maintain any standards at all?
Our leaders and experts were shocked, just shocked, by the recent standardized test cheating scandals—a topic we began discussing in the Baltimore Sun in the mid-1970s. Beyond that, they seem to think that our eighth graders are pretty much all alike.
Over the past many years, they've peddled cherry-picked propaganda about test scores in much the way other folk breathe. Is it our imagination, or do they exist to peddle the ideas of the (possibly well-intentioned) billionaires who fund them?
Clearly, it's all anthropology now! God died in the 19th century. By now, Aristotle's "rational animal" has plainly walked away too.
Plainly, we aren't rational animals, or anything dimly like that. As we all await Mr. Trump's War, only one question remains:
Who the heck is Arne Duncan? Also, what kinds of creatures are we, really? And how did we get to this place?
Coming soon The liberal world's "solutions"