GAPS AND STANDARDS: The kid who couldn't pass Algebra 1!

FRIDAY, APRIL 27, 2018

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.

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.
"Of all the obstacles to graduation, algebra was the most daunting," Helfand said as he continued. He quoted Superintendent Roy Romer saying this:

"[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 Naep
All schools, public and private:
Average score:

90th percentile: 329
10th percentile: 237
To peruse those data, and data from earlier years, click here, scroll to pages 34-35.

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 Naep
All schools, public and private:
Average score:

90th percentile: 276
10th percentile: 203
Between the 90th and 10th percentiles, a giant gap obtained.

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 stands
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
Those 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.

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"


  1. "There are also lots of students like Gabriella, who could barely do long division when she entered high school."

    Yeah, they are victims of the 'social promotion' practice. What else is new?

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    2. No, they're victims of the fact that -- like English prosody is to some people, or learning a new language -- they just can't grasp the connections. It doesn't click.

      Nothing wrong with that, either. Forcing these kids to repeatedly swallow Algebra is abusive.

    3. High-school algebra (not to mention long division) is not the rocket science. With an adequate teacher, any normal child growing up in a non-ghetto environment (which is the context of this post) should be able to figure out the quadratic equation and such. If they try and try again and they can't, then it's time for special ed.

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  2. Bob, these people know that all 8th graders don't belong at the same level. Of course they do. But you see, we have ourselves a "multicultural" society. That is to say, we got lots of people from all over the world living here. And here's the problem: in selling this idea of a multicultural society, a giant lie was driven into our heads through endless propaganda. Namely, that "we're all the same."

    You see, if they started tracking children based on performance, it would very quickly and very evidently become racial sorting. That would be very bad in terms of selling this idea of "diversity [being] our greatest strength."

    So instead, they just pretend this makes sense, and who cares that it fucks over basically everyone. There is simply no cost too high to appease the great god diversity.

    1. Diversity means that some people are good at math and some aren't.

      It's a proper ideal.

    2. The neoliberal view is that because there is diversity to be found among individuals both the fairest and the most wealth maximizing way, always, to organize society is as a meritocracy. In the post-industrial world the near final ordering of what each person deserves then will be determined by their academic performance over the course of their primary, secondary, and post secondary school careers- the exception being for those academic under achievers who go on to spectacular success as athletes, artists, or entrepreneurs.

      Again, according to neoliberalism, whereas persons do have a right to live in a meritocracy, society should grant them no other birth right, regardless of how affluent the society is. The neoliberal view is that, beyond the right to compete, advantages are to be reserved/preserved for the beneficiaries both of private acts of charity and what parents or extended family members share with their own relations. That there is a class of children who benefit from being born into well off families serves to create an additional incentive for individuals to strive to succeed, or rather it creates this incentive among those who, from their teen years on, make long run calculations which take into consideration what they want for their progeny.

      New Deal/Great Society liberals (social democrats) have a different, more philosophically Rawlsian view about what the obligations of society to the individual should be.

    3. Good God almighty, you're a crushing bore.

    4. I think this puts it more succinctly, Cmike.


    5. I know, I do it all the time. Thanks for reminding me of Rawls. I'm a Dewey fan as well. I also like Booth , though I assume he is an acquired taste.


  3. Helfand's article refers to the Los Angeles school district. Their practices and standards do not necessarily correspond to those in the thousands of other school districts around the country.

    Educational policy, curriculum and standards are set mostly at the state and local level. And as 33 states have Republican control, perhaps it would be helpful if Somerby examined the educational policies in those states. That is, if Somerby truly cared about education and educational policy.

    Somerby shows no interest in providing an honest, informative view of the way education actually works in America. He is content to work with his own narrow set of facts and prejudices, bolstered by the bathos of a 12-year-old newspaper story. And, he wants to shame and criticize just one side in the debate.

    He won't read this or care, so screw it.

    1. They're all about the same. More math and science.

    2. "He won't read this or care, so screw it."

      Well, if he does, it would have been wasted time. Your pathos is wasted here.

  4. I hate schools and teachers who fail deserving students.

    Up until 6th grade I went to a small farm town school in Ohio. I always had straight As, and was in the 99th percentile on national achievement tests. We had no tv, and I often read the same fiction as my parents in the evening because I'd already read all the children's fiction in the small town library. I loved school and devoured any task placed in front of me. I was the whole package of a very smart kid.

    We moved to a west coast wealthy suburb. They were doing a different kind of math, it looked different on the page and blackboard, and they talked about it differently. I had never gotten a C on a test, ever. Immediately, in my first weeks, D and F. The teacher did not look at my record and figure I might need tutoring. My parents were in a divorce and didn't pay any attention. I never recovered. 7th grade, 8th grade, I could not understand math, which I used to think was so easy only silly people didn't get it. By 8th grade I was actively cheating on tests, something I had previously felt deserved something like the death penalty. Failing math made me an academic failure and I couldn't concentrate on history or science or anything in school anymore because I hated it. Dropped out completely in 10th Grade eventually got a GED. Ended up becoming an artist, which is fine, but it shouldn't have been because I could barely do long division.

    1. Maybe this girl just can't grasp algebra. She might do better in coding, or music.

      The fault is not the schools. It's the mandated requirements.

    2. "I never recovered."

      Tru dat.

    3. As a math person, I have noticed that many excellent students are really bad at math. I think what happens is that they get stuck on one point that they don't understand. Without understanding that point, they can't understand what follows.

    4. "As a math person..."
      Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
      "As a comedian", is more like it.

  5. But why did God die in the 19th century? Her downward spiral began when she failed group theory.

  6. I am fairly sure that all 8th graders are NOT taking the same math - even in the same school district. Even when I was in the 8th grade in the Cretaceous Era (ca 1973) there were two tracks. I had 300 people in my 8th grade. About 60 of us - two sections - were picked to take algebra 1 in the 8th grade. The rest had to take 8th grade math. Then in the 9th grade they took Algebra 1 while we took Algebra II.

    That was all that was required, although some student continued to take math through high school (which was 10th to 12th while I went to school). Thus I took geometry in the 10th grade, with upperclassmen in my class. The same was true of 11th grade math, and other classes. I took German 3 in the 11th grade and also chemistry and had seniors in both classes.

    We had quasi-modular scheduling though, so we may have had more options for classes than they do today. We also had two shifts in high school, early which was 8 to 2:20 and late which was 9 to 3:20. For four of my six semesters, including my entire senior year, I came early and left late.

    I was young and foolish enough to think that education mattered.

    Now in my 16th year of a job that requires a 5th grade education.

  7. If you're not a race realist you'll continue to be absolutely flummoxed by stories like this, like it appears even Bob is. "Why can't she do Algebra? It must have just been a parade of horrible teachers, right? After all, human ability to do higher order math isn't at all determined by genetic factors that may differ between racial groups. No, it was definitely bad teachers..."

    1. There probably are significant genetic differences in math ability among human beings. But, all races are represented in all parts of the distribution. There are some Asians at the bottom and some blacks at the top.

      Also, culture is no doubt significant. Many Asian cultures value learning highly. OTOH some black students actively discourage learning, as "acting white." Wikipedia says
      In the United States, acting white is a pejorative term, usually applied to African Americans, which refers to a person's perceived betrayal of their culture by assuming the social expectations of white society.[1][2] Success in education in particular (depending on one's cultural background) can be seen as a form of "selling out" by being disloyal to one's culture.[2]

      The term is controversial, and its precise meaning is hard to define.[1] Some minority students are discouraged from achieving in school by the negative prejudices of ethnic peers...

    2. That's a rather open-minded sounding comment David in Cal. I'll have to say, I continue to be surprised you don't come across like this more often.

      Anyway, here's Ezra Klein on a related subject

      [QUOTE] Sam Harris, host of the Waking Up podcast, and I have been going back and forth over an interview Harris did with The Bell Curve author Charles Murray. In that interview, which first aired almost a year ago, the two argued that African Americans are, for a combination of genetic and environmental reasons, intrinsically and immutably less intelligent than white Americans, and Murray argued that the implications of this “forbidden knowledge” should shape social policy.

      Vox published a piece criticizing the conversation, Harris was offended by the piece and challenged me to a debate, and after a lot of back-and-forth, this is that debate.

      But even if you’re not interested in the backstory, I think this discussion — which is also being released on Harris’s podcast — is worth listening to. Harris’s view is that the criticism he and Murray have received is a moral panic driven by identity politics and political correctness.

      My view is that contemporary IQ results are inseparable from both the past and present of racism in America, and to conduct this conversation without voices who are expert on that subject, and who hail from the affected communities, is to miss the point from the outset.... [END QUOTE]


    3. Excerpts from the Harris/Klein podcast follow:

      Sam Harris:
      I mean, your last piece, you have this whole section on the “Flynn effect” LINK and how the Flynn effect should be read as accounting for the black-white differences in purely environmental terms. Well, even Flynn rejects that interpretation of the Flynn effect.

      I mean, he had originally had hoped, he publicly hoped, that his effect would account for that, but now he has acknowledged that the data don’t suggest that. There are many errors of this kind that you and Nisbett and Turkheimer are making when you criticize me and Murray. You criticize Murray for errors that he didn’t make....

      Ezra Klein
      [Y]ou mentioned James Flynn here. To prepare for this conversation, I called Flynn the other day. I spoke to him on Monday. His read of the evidence right now, and this is me quoting him. He says, “I think it is more probably than not that the IQ difference between black and white Americans is environmental. As a social scientist, I cannot be sure if they have a genetic advantage or disadvantage.” That is what James Flynn thinks of Monday....

      During our email exchange, let me use this as an example. You wrote to me, again quoting here, “If James Flynn is right, if Flynn is right, than the mean IQs of African-American children, who are second- and third-generation upper middle class, should have converged with those of the children of upper middle class whites. But as far as I understand they haven’t.”

      I think that sentence right there, that is not having enough experience, or having thought hard enough, or dug into the literature. I mean, there are different ways of learning about the world, of course, but about people who’s experience is different than yours.

      I mean, I’ll give one example that I actually said to you in these emails. African American families making $100,000 a year tend to live in neighborhoods with the same income composition as white families making $30,000 a year.

      To say that you have an African-American family that is middle class or upper middle class and that their experience is now so similar to that of whites that somehow the environmental atmosphere around them has equalized, I think that is something that is being missed and that, the way you—

      Sam Harris
      But Ezra what’s being missed—

      Ezra Klein
      I’ll just finish on this point. The way you leverage identity politics here is a way of not forcing yourself to see some of that.

      Sam Harris
      Okay, but this is something you’ve done by implication, more or less every time you’ve touched this topic. You’ve suggested that Murray is trying to establish that the differences between the mean IQs in various groups are genetic, right? He’s not. He’s simply suggested that there’s good reason to believe that genes and environment both play a part....


    4. ...continued

      Ezra Klein
      ...[S]cientifically what, the scientists who are on my side of this argument, think, and they include James Flynn and many others, they say that’s where we are here.

      Sam Harris
      Not quite, but okay.

      Ezra Klein
      I just quoted him to you. Again, I just spoke to him two days ago.

      Sam Harris
      No, but it was still a misleading summary of what he said. I know what he’s on record saying here. You’re interpreting it in a way that you like, I understand that.

      Ezra Klein
      James Flynn just said to me two days ago that it is consistent with the evidence that there is a genetic advantage or disadvantaged for African Americans. That it is entirely possible that the 10-point IQ difference we see reflects a 12-point environmental difference and a negative-two genetic difference.

      Sam Harris
      Sure, sure, many things are possible. We’re trying to judge on what is plausible to say...

    5. David in Cal,

      It just dawned on me why you sounded so reasonable in your comment above. Your hero Thomas Sowell weighed in early and heavily against Hernstein and Murray's 1994 The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Maybe if Sowell had gotten more things right over the years, you would be a BernieBro today.

    6. Isn't that just so precious. CMike tip toes up to the former John Bircher and offers him an olive branch. You really are one dumb motherfucker, CMike.

    7. Well done, CMike! My comment was indeed influenced by Thomas Sowell's criticism of The Bell Curve for not paying enough attention to the impact of culture on intelligence.

    8. Blacks are intrinsically and immutably better athletes, musicians, dancers, singers than whites by a huge margin. They are more fashionable and all around much much cooler and more fun and interesting than the dull and paranoid whites as exemplified by collassal snoozes like Sam Harris and Ezra Klein.

      Less intelligent? It depends on what you mean by intelligence. I would prefer to live in a world full of black people much more than a world full of Sam Harris's. That's for God damn sure.

    9. Jeez, I thought this environment v genetics thing had been resolved already. Apparently not. Skinner was only partially right. When you’re shot out your mother’s birth canal, you have no free will. But it does develop over time it seems, in the sense that you can either make the decision to choose or to decide.

      What’s the difference? To decide is to make up your mind, two shoes is what you wear on your feet. As long as you know where your feet are.


    10. CMike quotes Ezra Klein: "My view is that contemporary IQ results are inseparable from both the past and present of racism in America..."

      I agree. But, how does past racism affect the IQ of the average black person today? What's the mechanism? IMHO the mechanism must be that current black culture developed in a less than ideal way, due to past racism. But it follows that not all cultures are equal. This violates a typical liberal belief is that no culture is superior to any other culture.

      In short, liberalism has a problem: they're not allowed to explain the IQ difference by genetics. They're not allowed to inferior culture. The current state of the law gives blacks better protections than non-blacks, so the IQ difference can't be explained by discriminatory laws.

      They're left with the mythical "white privilege" -- which hasn't stopped Asians from out-doing whites.

    11. LINK

      [QUOTE] ...Two centuries ago, all New Guineans were still "living in the Stone Age." That is, they still used stone tools similar to those superseded in Europe by metal tools thousands of years ago, and they dwelt in villages not organized under any centralized political authority.

      Whites had arrived, imposed centralized government, and brought material goods whose value New Guineans instantly recognized, ranging from steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas. In New Guinea all these goods were referred to collectively as "cargo."

      Many of the white colonialists openly despised New Guineans as "primitive." Even the least able of New Guinea's white "masters," as they were still called in 1972, enjoyed a far higher standard of living than New Guineans, higher even than charismatic politicians like Yali.

      Yet Yali had quizzed lots of whites as he was then quizzing me, and I had quizzed lots of New Guineans. He and I both knew perfectly well that New Guineans are on the average at least as smart as Europeans.

      All those things must have been on Yali's mind when, with yet another penetrating glance of his flashing eyes, he asked me, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"

      It was a simple question that went to the heart of life as Yali experienced it. Yes, there still is a huge difference between the lifestyle of the average New Guinean and that of the average European or American. Comparable differences separate the lifestyles of other peoples of the world as well. Those huge disparities must have potent causes that one might think would be obvious.

      Yet Yali's apparently simple question is a difficult one to answer. I didn't have an answer then.... [END QUOTE]

      For an earlier look at the role nature and geography in the launching different civilizations, see Jacob Bronowski. Here are a total of sixty minutes of video from the first two episodes of his series The Ascent of Man which leads up to his concentration on the evolution of western civilization LINK LINK. Unfortunately, the Episode 2 video is offered in thumbnail but worthwhile to watch nonetheless.

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