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NCLB Outrages

The Numbers Game

Ohanian Comment: I suggest that anybody who thinks NAEP writes good tests should read the mango cheeks question.

The Passages
All the released reading passages are online at the NAEP website, but one must access them through the NAEP site. You can access story texts through the questions site. Once you pull up a question, click on "View Reading Passage." Here is the question site:

How the Brazilian Beetles Got Their Coats retold by Elsie Eels (from The Moral Compass, edited and with commentary by William J. Bennett, Simon & Schuster. 1995) offers a small example of how background knowledge and experience informs the text. It would be interesting to ask children to explain the meaning of set in this sentence: In Brazil the beetles have such beautifully colored, hard-shelled coats upon their backs that they are sometimes set in pins and necklaces like precious stones. . . . Children of relative affluence are more likely to know about "setting" jewels, particularly when "set" is used differently a few paragraphs later: The bright green and gold parrot set the royal palm tree at the top of the cliff as the goal of the race.

And if a fourth grader does understand the first meaning, we can guarantee he will be grossed out by the concept.

But I admit that for me this set variance was small potatoes compared with green mangoes with golden flushes on their cheeks lying on the ground under the mango trees. I don't know anything about mangoes and learning they have cheeks stopped me cold in my reading. My husband didn't know about mango cheeks either, dismissing my question with "You know what they mean." But neither one of us quite knows what a mango looks like. An Internet search reveals I can buy frozen mango cheeks and cook a coconut, mango, and lychee terrine. I even found a picture of a mango cheek. My point here is that as a reader this term shut down my reading for about 15 minutes. Test takers can't afford to stop and ponder, never mind check the Internet.

My full discussion of NAEP test questions was published in Substance, November 2005. No other publication in the country would have published this article.

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By Andrew Wolf

Last week, New York State revised its list of schools under registration review, the so-called SURR list. These are schools that are performing so badly that they are being considered for closing.

The idea of closing schools departs a bit from reality. Demolition crews do not come in and level the building. Usually "closing the school" means changing the name and number of the school, removing the principal and some, if not all, of the teaching staff. Most importantly for educrats, the school is now considered new, not failing, so it is removed from the SURR list.

I know of some schools that have had three different numbers in recent years. But changing the number doesn't change much. Five of the nine new schools just added to the SURR list have been there before under a different number. This is the strategy of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, a sad reality for the children.

The city's Department of Education has found a brilliant way to reduce the total number of schools on the SURR list and make itself look better in the public eye. The education bureaucrats do a preemptive strike and "close" schools before the state designates them as SURR. Thus the department can boast of a decline in the number of SURR schools and give the "new" school a free pass for a number of years.

The finagling surrounding the SURR schools is just the tip of the iceberg in the numbers game. Right now the city's education department is negotiating with the state education department over how high school graduation rates should be calculated. The state formula pegs the number at 43%, while the city insists it is 58%. As you might suspect, the city is using some very liberal criteria to come up with that figure.

The question I have is why the state, which has complete authority in these matters, is even entertaining a negotiation with a locality to revise the standards for calculating graduation rates or anything else. If they change the criteria ΓΆ€“ and the goal of the city here is to push the "official" graduation rate above 50% ΓΆ€“ not one additional child will actually have received a diploma on time.

The figure of 43% sounds bad, it is alarming, and it is a reflection of the abject failure of the education system. As far as I'm concerned, it is a good number to arouse the public. If the city wants to raise the rate, it should do it by actually producing more graduates, rather than by accounting tricks.

The ultimate educational deception, as I've pointed out in this space previously, is the grade inflation of the tests New York administers to our children. For instance, the state test reports that about 70% of the Empire State's fourth-graders are at grade level, while testing under the federally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests that the true level may be half that.

This is worth bringing up again at this moment, because the federal No Child Left Behind law is up for reauthorization. Forces on both the far left and far right are conspiring to gut some of the most important provisions of the law. Just last week, 50 Republican representatives and senators announced that they would like to end the "unfunded" testing mandates.

This is nonsense. The cost of testing is but a tiny amount in a huge budget. What they are actually suggesting is that they don't want the federal government forcing them to give tests.

The experience over the years is clear. If you don't test, no incentives are built into the system for improvement. Education may be a state responsibility, but the meltdown in American educational standards threatens, in a real way, our national security.

So here is my suggestion for fixing the testing provisions of NCLB. So as to relieve the states of this financial burden, the federal government will offer to pick up the testing tab. But only if the states use the tougher, more accurate tests developed by the governing board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Once parents and taxpayers see just how badly their children are really doing, pressures for reform, both structural and, more importantly, instructional, will force real change.

We are deluding ourselves with fantasies of success, fed by such spinmeisters as the educrats negotiating over the calculation of graduation rates here in New York. That exercise benefits only the status quo. The truth, no matter how painful, will ultimately benefit our students and our nation.

— Andrew Wolf
New York Sun


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