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Daily Howler: Diane Ravitch asked good questions. Reporters should chase down the answers
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DIANE RAVITCH IS ASKING GOOD QUESTIONS! Diane Ravitch asked good questions. Reporters should chase down the answers: // link // print // previous // next //

Thursday night and Friday morning: Last night, Rachel Maddow returned to the “tea-bagging” wars, having spent seven minutes clowning about the funny term on Thursday evening’s program (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/10/09). But last night, as she commonly does, Maddow reinvented her own past conduct. Suddenly, we were asked to believe that Thursday’s extended clownfest had been a “difficult” chore:

MADDOW (4/10/09): Last night on this program, I was joined by Ana Marie Cox for a rather [brief pause] difficult discussion about “tea-bagging.” Conservative activists and Fox News Channel teaming up to organize protest actions that include sending tea bags to members of Congress, pledging to “tea-bag” the White House....

At the risk of saying the word “tea-bag" more than my conscience can bear, there are two remaining points here that I would hope to still be able to clear up.

What a perfect pile of crap. As any fool can see by watching the tape, Thursday night’s discussion wasn’t “difficult” at all. The ladies were joking, clowning and simpering, going a million miles out of their way to say the very funny term as many times as they possibly could. (By way of contrast, very few “conservative activists” or Fox News people were shown using the funny term.) Sorry. Maddow and Cox were like Beavis and Butt-head cackling about the term “69.” (Richard Nixon took office in 69. Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.) They laughed and clowned and simpered and played, burning time which could have been used to clarify actual issues.

(To watch Thursday night’s segment, click here. To watch last night’s segment, click this.)

By last night, Maddow seemed to be pretending that the whole affair had been “difficult.” She proceeded with one of her silly “analyses” of what the “tea-baggers” are complaining about—forgetting to ask any real tea-baggers to explain their own complaints, of course. (The clip about Obama’s place of birth was especially disingenuous—although it made excellent comfort food.) And then, as Maddow closed her segment, her persistent dishonesty was on display once again. Truly, the highlighted statements are piss-pitiful. But watch the tape to see how sincere she seems to be as she says them:

MADDOW: Tea-bagging is an embarrassing word. The idea of tea-bagging the White House is even more embarrassing. This guy’s sign says “Pork D.C.”

Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan today suggested that, in the absence of any clear motive for protesting, the tea parties should be seen as tea tantrums instead. Awaiting further signs of rational motivation, I am inclined to agree.

“Tea-bagging is an embarrassing word?” What a perfect pile of crap! And good grief. Maddow, who boasts about her own sixth-grade sense of humor, even seemed to sadly tsk-tsk about one shlub’s “Pork DC” sign.

Progressives will grow very fat and lazy, served comfort food like that.

Watching Thursday night’s Beavis and Butt-head segment, we abandoned any thought that Maddow will ever create a real program. Last night, as we watched her reinvent Thursday’s clowning, we recalled a question we asked last week: Does this host ever play it straight?

The analysts asked us again last night. We didn’t quite know what to tell them.

DIANE RAVITCH IS ASKING GOOD QUESTIONS: We recommend Diane Ravitch’s op-ed column in Friday’s New York Times. “Mayor Bloomberg’s Crib Sheet,” the tangy headline said.

Key basic points were discussed about alleged progress in New York City schools—and, by implication, in low-income schools in general. We don’t necessarily agree with every word Ravitch wrote. But her topics are all highly relevant:

Alleged progress in New York City schools: Challenging comments by Ed Sec Arne Duncan, Ravitch pens a major buzz-kill about alleged progress in New York City under Mayor Bloomberg. She starts with test scores in reading and math since Bloomberg’s policies took effect:

RAVITCH (4/10/09): On the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress...New York City showed almost no academic improvement between 2003, when the mayor’s reforms were introduced, and 2007. There were no significant gains for New York City’s students—black, Hispanic, white, Asian or lower-income—in fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade reading or eighth-grade mathematics. In fourth-grade math, pupils showed significant gains (although the validity of this is suspect because an unusually large proportion—25 percent—of students were given extra time and help). The federal test reported no narrowing of the achievement gap between white students and minority students.

Unless we’re reading the NAEP data wrong, the NAEP does report statistically significant gains in math for New York City’s lower-income eighth-graders during that period. (Click here; then click ahead to page 51.) On the other hand, the same chart shows slightly larger gains, during that same period, for the nation’s lower-income eighth-graders as a whole. Data like these should be reviewed with great care when pleasing claims are made about progress, in New York City or anywhere else. By the way: What’s up with Ravitch’s claim about the large proportion of Gotham kids “given extra time and help” on the NAEP? Such “accommodations” are a regular part of NAEP testing procedures. Were too many “accommodations” allowed in New York? We have no idea—but yes, such things do matter.

Apparent progress on state tests: According to Ravitch, New York City test scores have risen on the state of New York’s statewide tests more rapidly than on the NAEP (which is “widely acknowledged as the gold standard of the testing industry,” as Ravitch correctly notes). Here’s that part of her column:

RAVITCH (continuing directly from above): The city’s Department of Education belittles [the NAEP] and focuses on the assessments given by New York State. And, indeed, the state scores have soared in recent years, not only in the city but also across New York state. However, the statewide scores on the N.A.E.P. are as flat as New York City’s. Our state tests are, unfortunately, exemplars of grade inflation.

The highlighted statement suggests a possibility: New York’s statewide tests may be getting easier as years go by, producing artificial score gains (“grade inflation”). We’ll offer a point that Ravitch does not: Journalists should insist on statistical evidence that statewide tests are equally difficult from one year to the next. In theory, test construction isn’t a matter of guesswork; theoretically, a state should be able to demonstrate that this year’s test is as hard as last year’s. Journalists never ask about this. They should ask, every year.

Apparent rise in graduation rates: Ravitch also challenges claims about rising graduation rates. New York City’s thumb has been on the scale, she seems to suggest, in some detail:

RAVITCH (continuing directly): The graduation rate is another area in which progress has been overstated. The city says the rate climbed to 62 percent from 53 percent between 2003 and 2007; the state’s Department of Education, which uses a different formula, says the city’s rose to 52 percent, from 44 percent. Either way, the city’s graduation rate is no better than that of Mississippi, which spends about a third of what New York City spends per pupil.

Moreover, the city’s graduation rates have been pumped up with a variety of dubious means, like “credit recovery,” in which students who fail a course can get full credit if they agree to take a three-day makeup program or turn in an independent project. In addition, the city counts as graduates the students who dropped out and obtained a graduate-equivalency degree.

To further raise the graduation rate, the city does not include as dropouts any of the students who were “discharged” during their high-school years. Some discharges are legitimate, like students who moved to another school district. But many others are so-called push-outs, students who were ejected from school even though they had a legal right to be there, often because their grades and test scores were bringing down their schools’ averages. The Department of Education refuses to disclose how many students are in each of these categories. We do know, however, that more than one-fifth of the members of the class of 2007, or 18,524 students, were discharged and not counted as dropouts.

Drop-out and graduation rates are hard to compute, even when a city or state is trying to play it straight. Ravitch makes serious charges here. Now that these charges have appeared in an op-ed piece, reporters should examine the charges in the Times’ news pages.

Are statewide tests getting easier? Are graduation rates getting jacked? Ravitch’s column raises good questions. Her questions should be examined in news reports, not just in op-ed columns.