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Daily Howler: The New York Times plays its readers for fools about those Wake County test scores
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ILLITERATES EVERYWHERE! The New York Times plays its readers for fools about those Wake County test scores: // link // print // previous // next //

ILLITERATES EVERYWHERE: Is Wake County, N. C. (Greater Raleigh) producing the latest educational miracle? The New York Times’ Alan Finder seems to want you thinking just that. Here’s the heart of his Sunday front-page feel-gooder—the latest laughable Times report about those “schools that work:”
FINDER (9/25/05): Over the last decade, black and Hispanic students here in Wake County have made such dramatic strides in standardized reading and math tests that it has caught the attention of education experts around the country.

The main reason for the students' dramatic improvement, say officials and parents in the county, which includes Raleigh and its sprawling suburbs, is that the district has made a concerted effort to integrate the schools economically...

In Wake County, only 40 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored at grade level on state tests a decade ago. Last spring, 80 percent did. Hispanic students have made similar strides. Overall, 91 percent of students in those grades scored at grade level in the spring, up from 79 percent 10 years ago.

Wow! Times readers felt a familiar glow; 80 percent of Wake County black kids scored at grade level on last spring’s tests! But here’s what Finder didn’t tell you—across the state of North Carolina, 77 percent of all black kids scored at grade level on those same tests! That’s right; the Times devoted this front-page story to a three-point difference in passing rates—a three-point difference in passing rates on tests almost everyone passes!

So you can grasp the grinding illiteracy found among New York Times ed writers, let’s make sure you understand how these numbers work. For example, how well did Wake County black fifth-graders do on last spring’s reading test? According to the state’s official results, 88 percent of Wake’s black students tested “proficient” on the state test. But then, 83 of black fifth graders tested “proficient” on this same test statewide! In short, the large majority of fifth-graders—black, white and brown—tested “proficient” all over the state! But you never learn that in Finder’s piece. Instead, you get a warm, fuzzy feeling about Wake’s score gains—score gains which Finder attributes to a particular aspect of Wake’s educational program.

Have Wake’s black passing rates doubled in the past decade? Almost—but then, the same thing has happened all over the state! (Data below. Any chance that the current tests are just easier?) Did 80 percent of Wake’s black kids pass last year? Yes—but so did black kids all over the state! In short, Finder is the latest illiterate making a joke of our educational discourse. If we actually care about school kids, he and his editor won’t be allowed within a hundred miles of this topic again.

We’ve told you this, again and again: Your “press corps” loves those schools-that-work stories, and they’ll do almost anything to throw such tales at you. How well are Wake County’s schools really doing? We don’t have the slightest idea. But duh! To all appearances, North Carolina has easy state tests—tests which almost everyone passes. Finder doesn’t tell you that. Instead, he makes you feel good.

WHY YOU’RE BEING PLAYED THIS WAY: Finder’s piece has an obvious sub-text. Wake County is busing to achieve economic integration—and this is producing big score gains.

For ourselves, we would favor such a program as long as the voters were willing. But these Wake Country test scores provide little evidence of big pay-offs in minority achievement if you enact such a program. Yes, Wake has shown good score gains (most likely on easier tests)—but so have schools all over the state! How can Wake’s program account for gains which are happening in all the state’s districts?

Yes, the gains are occurring all over the state (details below). But apparently, Finder didn’t want you to know that. As good pseudo-liberals have endlessly done, he just wanted you feeling real good about a type of program he favors. As good pseudo-liberals have shamelessly done, he wanted you thinking something bogus and cruel: When it comes to the education of poor black children, success is right there for the taking. In various ways, pseudo-liberals have pimped this feel-good pap over the past forty years.

Of course, something else is always possible. It’s possible that Finder and his editor didn’t realize that black kids passed these tests in large numbers statewide. It’s ironic to see such illiterate adults passing judgment on the knowledge of children. But so it has gone, for years, in the nation’s education press.

DO THE MATH: The details: As Finder noted, 80 percent of Wake County black kids (grades 3-8) passed the state tests this year in both reading and math. But uh-oh! Statewide, 76 percent of blacks kids passed the reading test; 78 percent passed in math. (Minor point of language: Finder says they scored “at grade level.” The state says they tested “proficient.”)

But then, you can do the math yourselves! North Carolina has an excellent web site which lets you check all the relevant data, county by county, back to 1994. The info is very easy to access—unless you’re a Gotham illiterate.

Here’s the page with the “background” information (“North Carolina State Testing Results”). Here’s the page from which you can access all info about Wake and the state as a whole.

THOSE TEN-YEAR SCORE GAINS: More details, this time about those ten-year gains in reading. In 1994-95, 52 percent of Wake’s black kids passed the statewide reading tests (grades 3-8). By this year, that had jumped to 80 percent. But uh-oh! The same thing has happened all over the state! In 1994-95, 47 percent of all black kids passed the reading test statewide. By this year, that number had jumped to 76 percent. Finder only mentions Wake’s gains—and attributes the gains to Wake’s program.

By the way, Finder seems to be wrong when he says: “In Wake County, only 40 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored at grade level on state tests a decade ago.” In 1994-95, 52 percent of Wake’s black students passed the state test in reading. That same year, 50 percent of Wake’s black kids passed the test in math. But then, you can check that out for yourselves. Thanks to North Carolina’s excellent site, the data are there for the taking.

ILLITERACY SPREADS: You’d think they’d know better in Raleigh itself. But yesterday, the News-Observer ran a short piece on Finder’s report. Here’s what locals were handed:

THE NEWS-OBSERVER (9/25/05): Wake County Schools' success at achieving strong academic scores while integrating students economically is the subject of a high-profile article in today's New York Times.

The Times reports that Wake school district has become a national model...

Since 2000, the district has assigned students based on family income, with a goal of limiting each school to having no more than 40 percent of its students from low-income families. The district took that course after federal court decisions began to dismantle race-based desegregation plans.

School officials and parents say the economic integration plan is the key factor in the district's rapidly improving test scores among black and Hispanic students, The Times reported.

The story cites test scores showing that 80 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored at grade level last spring, up from 40 percent a decade ago...

You’d think this local paper would know the salient fact—that these scores have gone up all over the state. But the paper repeated the claim, without challenge—the scores have gone up due to Raleigh’s economic integration program. The News-Observer also repeated that “40 percent a decade ago” claim.

How effective is this busing program? If you enact it in one district, scores rise all over the state!

THE BOTTOM LINE: The bottom line in these stories is always this—there’s a simple solution to the prevailing disasters of low-income minority education. This claim makes pseudo-liberals feel good. And they get to pretend that red-state rubes are standing in the way of progress. “If only they were as enlightened as we, the problem would be over,” they get to say. “If only they’d adopt the enlightened plan that has worked such wonders in Raleigh!”

(By the way, don’t you think that Wake County’s superintendent, Bill McNeal, knows that scores have gone up all over the state? We always marvel at “public servants” who pimp their own genius this way.)

For a report of our first encounter with this general syndrome (in 1972), see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/8/05. That columnist was hugely wrong about Baltimore’s schools—and he was clearly a fine, caring person.