THE GENERALS DATA! As always, a gang of pundits knew who we should trust: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2007
RELEVANT DATA LEFT BEHIND: Wed like to compliment the Washington Post for the attention it pays to educational issues, like this weeks impending debate on renewal of No Child Left Behind. This morning, the Post devotes a lot of space on its op-ed and editorial pages to this impending debate, and it offers this front-page report on a related subject. But simply put, the work isnt good, in familiar, time-honored ways.
Lets consider that front-page report. In it, Daniel de Vise examines SAT scores from DC-area high schools, scores in which black kids who took the SAT continue to score substantially lower than their white peers who were tested.
For the record, de Vises data suggest that plenty of black kids in the Washington area are scoring well on the SAT. For example, black kids at (affluent) high schools like Walt Whitman (Bethesda) and Langley (McLean) are outscoring or matching white kids at more middle-class schools like Wheaton or Edison (Alexandria); presumably, there are plenty of black kids in these schools who are achieving good scores. (In all cases, were talking about kids who chose to take the SATs, not the entire student bodies.) But what explains the lingering racial SAT gap that continues at the eight high schools de Vise discusses? As is often the case in these matters, de Vise offers an impenetrable, seemingly bowdlerized discussion—one that sometimes seems determined to avoid considering obvious relevant data.
Why did tested black kids score below tested white kids at all eight of these high schools? Here is one of the maddening passages which define this piece:
DE VISE (9/10/07): Teachers, parents and scholars cite several factors in the persistent gap separating blacks' and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics' scores from whites' and Asians' scores on the SAT.Important! The wealthiest black kids dont take calculus as often as their white peers, de Vise says. But does anyone know what de Vise means when he calls this a deficiency that points to a historic lack of access to the classes? We dont have the slightest idea—but were suddenly diverted by this vague evocation of historical racial deprivation. Meanwhile, the first sentence weve highlighted strikes us as potentially important—but it is worded so vaguely that its relevance might be missed. Black students tend to arrive at elite high schools inadequately prepared for the SAT? We have no idea what that means, either; as far as we know, eighth-grade students dont take SAT prep classes, for instance. But it may mean this, and this would be important: It may mean that black students in these high schools were behind their white peers in academic functioning on the day they all entered high school. You cant expect such a gap to disappear just because everyone takes the same classes in high school, the solution that seems to be suggested at various points in this report. The obvious question would be this: Why were the tested black kids behind the tested white kids in eighth grade—and, perhaps, in sixth grade, or fourth? No, answering that question wouldnt be easy. But at least, the real problem would be clear.
But throughout this report, de Vise seems determined to cloud the important issues he raises. The most basic questions go unasked, as in this passage:
DE VISE (continuing directly): "There are differences in preparation that will take years to erase," said Wayne Camara, the College Board's vice president for research.That first comparison (65 v. 27 percent) is interesting, but irrelevant; it compares all students who graduated from Montgomery County high schools, not the kids who took the SAT. But the highlighted data are simply maddening. Were told that 22 percent of black sixth graders took advanced math in recent years, but we arent told how many white sixth graders did. Again, these data arent entirely relevant; more specifically, wed want to know how many of the tested high school students (white and black) took advanced math when they were in sixth grade. (Nor is Weasts deduction about future black test scores obvious, but lets not even bother with that.) In our view, de Vises piece almost seems designed to avoid presenting the relevant data. And as always, were left with an easy suggestion: If black students will just start taking the right courses, their scores will go up too.
No, that wont necessarily happen (more below). But its an easy conclusion.
What would we want to know about the groups of kids who took the SAT at those high schools? Wed want to see their scores on standardized tests when they were in the fourth, or sixth, or eighth grades. It may just be that those groups of black kids—many of whom did quite well on the SAT—were, on average, behind their white peers all the way back to grade school. If so, those unequal SAT scores are hardly surprising. And the real question—which is quite simple—has once again been joined.
Note: Late in the piece, someone says something that even makes sense—and that seems to be spoken in English:
DE VISE: "Simply attending a high-performing school doesn't guarantee success," said Bertra McGann, mother of two students at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, where 444 points separate the average score of black students from that of white students.Please note: Were not necessarily talking about black students who score poorly on the SAT; were talking about black students who score less well than tested white kids in their high schools. But this parent makes perfect sense—and her perspective is ignored until the end. In studying these scores, have these school systems tried to adjust for tried-and-true variables like family income and parental educational levels? In lifes early years, one set of loving parents may not help their children develop literacy quite as helpfully as another set of parents does. Result? Their kids may be behind their peers by the fourth grade (or by the second grade; or the first, or in kindergarten). Years later, superintendents, test makers and journalists will find themselves looking for obscurantist ways to explain the nagging gap that no one can quite disappear.
THE RIGHT COURSES CAN BE ALL WRONG: Its all about taking the right courses, Weast says. But that is simply, baldly inaccurate. If a student is academically unprepared to take the right courses, he or she wont likely benefit. Last year, the Los Angeles Times presented a brilliant report about a thoroughly decent kid who took the right course at her Los Angeles high school. In fact, she took the right course six separate times—and she failed it every time, eventually dropping out, in twelfth grade! Why did she fail? Almost surely, she wasnt prepared to take the right course—and almost surely, she shouldnt have taken it. For Duke Helfands superb report, just click here. Meanwhile, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/28/06, for a four-part, straight-A assessment.
Special report: Constructing character!
PART 1—THE GENERALS DATA: In finer circles, it just isnt done. On Friday, Paul Krugman offered warnings about this weeks congressional testimony by General David Petraeus. First, no independent assessment has concluded that violence in Iraq is down, Krugman said—and he described some problems with the data the military has been citing. In doing so, he drew on recent reporting by several major news orgs.
Second, Krugman said, Gen. Petraeus has a history of making wildly over-optimistic assessments of progress in Iraq that happen to be convenient for his political masters. He referred to the op-ed column Petraeus wrote shortly before the 2004 election. The column made optimistic assessments—assessments which didnt pan out.
Krugmans language was less than flattering, but his warnings make sense in a world without kings—in a world where we trust-but-verify. As weve said, his warnings didnt spring full-blown from his head; they were based on journalistic work done at several news orgs. But over at the Fox News Channel, Mr. O—Bill OReilly—was suitably shocked by the wild things the vile pundit had said. He started Friday evenings program with talking points on the matter:
OREILLY (9/7/07): On Monday, General David Petraeus will begin testifying about the situation in Iraq, by far, the most important issue in America today. All of us should listen closely to the general and consider what he says. That's is the fair and patriotic thing to do.Bill said we should listen closely to the general and consider what he says. But rather than follow his own advice, he jumped ahead to an early conclusion. Mr. O will be trusting Petraeus, he said. He didnt waste his time discussing the criticisms of the generals data.
But then, something similar had already happened on that evenings Special Report. Jim Angle played tape of senators Durbin and Reid talking about the upcoming testimony. Petraeus has made a number of statements over the years that have not proven to be factual, Reid said, correctly if somewhat indelicately. Durbin was tougher, predicting that the Bush-Petraeus report will try to persuade us that violence in Iraq is decreasing by carefully manipulating the statistics. One remark was a statement of fact; one was an unflattering prediction, based on the ongoing use of shaky data. But the all-stars knew how wrong this all was. Well quote them at some length:
ANGLE (9/7/07): OK. There are two Democratic leaders today talking about the Petraeus report. Fred, even before Petraeus ever gets to the Capitol Hill Democratic leaders are dismissing not only his reports, but also him.Fred and Mort were both appalled. As usual, Charles took things farther.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: Look, let's understand what Reid and Durbin are saying. They are saying that the commander of American's troops in the middle of a war is fudging the facts—in other words, lying—in order to pursue a strategy he knows is losing, losing his men, attending their memorials, but sending them into a battle he knows is lost.It was odd to cite that Ollie North moment. Americans loved North when he first testified, finding him wonderfully open and honest. But over the years, their assessment changed—so much so that North was defeated in a Virginia Senate race, a race in which his own partys Republican senator, John Warner, refused to support his election. But none of these all-stars tried to address the actual criticisms of the generals data, or of the things Petraeus has said in the past—things which didnt pan out. They just told us who they trusted—and who we should trust.
No, Durbin and Reid werent necessarily saying that Petraeus was lying, or that he wants to pursue a strategy he knows is losing. We humans fudge facts in many ways, with many motives (sometimes without any motives at all); many times, we humans fudge facts without even knowing were doing so. (Meanwhile, Petraeus could imaginably be fudging some facts because he does believe his strategy will work in the end.) But then, the modern pundit is an expert on character—and hes an expert at simple stories, simple tales which function as homilies about character. Indeed, this has been one of the pundit corps jobs in the past fifteen years. Our pundits go on TV each night—and tell us who we should trust.
Bill and Fred and Mort and Charles all know who has the outstanding character. Fred knows what Petraeus believes and thinks—and he knows that he isnt sugar-coating. None of them bothered addressing the actual merits of the complaints about this generals data. But then, theyve played this game for years, announcing who is—and who aint—honest.
Constructing character is their product—their most important product. Theyre paid to tell rubes who the experts are. And theyre paid to tell rubes who to trust.
TOMORROW—PART 2: Trusting Petraeus.