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Daily Howler: Hedrick Smith makes ''enormous'' claims. But do his claims actually work?
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MAKING SCHOOLS (SEEM TO) WORK! Centennial has a hard-working staff. But does this school actually “work?” // link // print // previous // next //

ENABLING BROOKS: Sadly, we’ve seen a lot of boosterist pseudo-journalism in the past twenty-four hours. We saw Keith Olbermann’s pseudo-interview of Joseph Wilson on last evening’s Countdown, for example. (Truly pathetic.) And we read this absurd presentation by Arianna Huffington—a post in which the pundit heaps praise on Chris Matthews’ “narrative” skills. Note a key point: Note that Arianna never says whether Matthews’ recent, repeated claim about the New York Times is actually accurate. And please note this: In the iterations of his claim which Arianna quotes, Matthews describes his claim as a “possibility”—and again, as something he “suspects.” In another iteration, he simply asks if his “narrative” happened. How do we know that this “narrative” happened? Arianna doesn’t seem to care, any more than she cared in 1999 and 2000, when she promoted another “narrative” she liked—the “narrative” which said that Al Gore was a fake, the narrative which sent Bush to the White House. To see her pushing this former “narrative,” see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/18/05. It was fabulists like Arianna who put Bush in the White House—who gave him the power to march us to war. We find it amazing when Dems and progressives pretend that this just didn’t happen—when we cheer the “narrative” skills that produced this wholesale disaster.

No one ever gets fired at the White House? Gee! How about on the liberal web?

But the most ridiculous work we’ve seen is this morning’s Times column by David Brooks. It’s a wild misleading piece—made possible by the three-year failure of Dems and libs to frame cogent talking-points on Iraq. Brooks’ column is very important. We’ll march straight through it tomorrow.

SMILE-A-WHILE: Here’s the funniest column we’ve read in some time, complained about mightily last night by O’Reilly. There’s an over-the-top insult in every line. Given the habits of its subject, it makes for an excellent parody.

Special report: Making schools (seem to) work!

PART 2—MAKING CENTENNIAL (SEEM TO) WORK: Centennial Elementary (Mount Vernon, Washington) is full of gorgeous, exuberant kids. It also has a teaching staff that is plainly intelligent and caring. As it happens, Centennial Elementary is the first school Hedrick Smith examines in his PBS documentary, Making Schools Work. (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/05) The program devotes about ten minutes to Centennial’s experience with its “totally scripted” (and semi-controversial) instructional program, “Success for All.” (The Mount Vernon District has been using the program since 1999.) Near the end of the segment, David Scott, a Mount Vernon School District official, describes results in the district’s six grade schools. At the start of this passage, Smith refers to Alejandra Lopez, an utterly charming Centennial third-grader whose reading progress has already been featured:

SMITH (10/5/05): [Success for All has made] a big difference not just for Alejandra but for most children in the six elementary schools in Mount Vernon.

SCOTT: When we implemented Success for All, at the beginning, we were at about 20 to 25 percent of students passing standard.

SMITH: Throughout the district?

SCOTT: Throughout the district. And that has increased to well over 50 percent, and in certain instances we’re at 70 and 80 percent of students meeting standard.

Those numbers seem to describe a big jump—and Smith quickly says that it’s happening elsewhere. “Nationwide, more than 650,000 children in 1,300 schools are using Success for All—and making gains,” he continues. Then, we hear from a perfesser expert. “What the Success for All people built was a very tightly tailored program,” she says. “And they said, ‘Use it. Use it this way. Don’t change it, and it will work.’ And it did.” According to Making Schools Work, Success for All is producing, yes, success at Centennial and all through the Mount Vernon district—and it’s doing so nationwide. Below, we’ll show you the Smith program’s claims for specific score gains at Centennial.

But have Centennial and other Mount Vernon schools shown a big jump in their reading achievement? It would be great if we could say yes, because the Mount Vernon District serves a largely low-income, Hispanic student population—exactly the kind of deserving kids who so often do poorly in our public schools. “In the 90s, their parents moved here from Mexico to work the huge industrial farms in the Pacific northwest,” Smith says. “Now their children flood into local schools,” he continues (using a slightly unfortunate verb), “dramatically altering the demographics of what used to be all-white, middle class schools like Centennial.” But have Centennial and Mount Vernon’s other five schools had big success with these beautiful kids? Sadly, we’d have to say no—they have not. In fact, a full appraisal of Centennial’s test scores does not suggest that this hard-working school has created “a small revolution in our schools” “with enormous implications for public schools nationwide,” the thrilling standard Smith articulates right at the start of his program. On balance, Centennial’s test scores seem to be very much like the scores one normally sees at low-income schools. There is little sign of that “small revolution.” To our eye, the “implications” are nil.

How can we possibly make this claim in the face of Scott’s cheerful appraisal (see above)? So we can make a more specific judgment, let’s look at what the Making Schools Work web site says about Centennial itself, rather than about the whole district:

“MAKING SCHOOLS WORK” WEB SITE: Migrant workers traditionally came to Mt. Vernon for seasonal work, but in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, companies started to help workers with housing, and they began to live in the area year round. As a result, the Mt. Vernon School District has experienced a significant shift in the needs of the children they teach. At Centennial, the percentage of Hispanic children has increased steadily, from 33 percent in 1997 to 54 percent in 2003. The percentage of children on the free and reduced lunch program jumped from 50 percent in 1997 to 72 percent in 2003.

As the school’s demographics shifted, its test scores fell. In 1997, only 49.5 percent of Centennial students met state reading standards. But after adopting Success for All in 1999 to help them address the needs of their changing student population, reading scores started to climb. In 2004, 74 percent of children met state reading standards. Centennial also saw a remarkable jump in math scores. Only 23 percent of children met the state math standards in 1997. By 2004, that number more than doubled to 56.6 percent.

According to this short history, test scores fell with the new demographics—until Success for All produced major gains. In reading, the school went from 49 percent meeting state standards in 1997 to 74 percent in 2004. And a similar “remarkable jump” was seen in the school’s math scores. In 1997, only 23 percent met state standards; seven years later, that number stood at 56.6 percent.

Granted, these numbers sound very, very good. Unless you know how to read numbers.

What is misleading about these claims? Let’s start with something that doesn’t get mentioned about that initial, 1997 math score. For the record, this score refers to one grade only, fourth grade—the only grade which gets tested under the state of Washington’s high-stakes “WASL” testing program. And yes, it’s true—in 1997 (the first year of this program), only 23.1 percent of Centennial’s fourth-graders met the state standard on the math test. But uh-oh! Although that sounds like a low passing rate, it actually exceeded the passing rate of the state as a whole! Yes, that’s right—back in 1997, only 21.4 of Washington fourth-graders statewide actually passed this new (and apparently “difficult”) test. Setting up a pleasing story, Smith’s web site tells us how bad Centennial’s passing rate was that year. But in fact, Centennial was beating the state as a whole that year—and by the year 2004, after all its “remarkable gains,” it had fallen behind the state’s norm. It’s true—in 2004, 56.6 of Centennial’s fourth graders passed the statewide math test. But in that same year, 59.9 percent of all fourth graders passed the same test statewide. And this year, the trend got worse. In the 2005 testing (conducted this spring), 48.4 percent of Centennial kids passed—while 60.8 percent passed statewide. To the extent that we can tell from this test, Centennial’s kids have been falling behind the state norm—a norm they exceeded at the start of this period. Of course, this the change that Making Schools Work describes as a “remarkable jump”—one of the remarkable jumps that is supposed to make us think that the school has effected a “small revolution,” one that has “enormous implications for public schools nationwide.”

For the record, a similar pattern obtains on Centennial’s fourth grade reading scores. Back in 1997, the school’s passing rate (49.5 percent) slightly exceeded the state as a whole (47.9 percent). But this year, after the “remarkable jump” which Success for All has produced, the school is well below the state norm. This year, 66.7 percent of Centennial fourth graders passed the statewide reading test—compared with a passing rate of 79.5 for the state of Washington as a whole.

Please note: None of this means that Centennial’s staff is doing a poor or inadequate job. Centennial’s low-income and second-language indicators have gone up during the period in question; it may even be that Centennial’s scores are somewhat better than one might expect from a school with this challenging “demographic.” But the Making Schools web site seems to play tricks in the way it produces these fourth-grade data—tricks designed to make you think that Centennial’s story is better, much better, than it actually is. And as we have mentioned, these test scores—from the high-stakes WASL—refer to Centennial’s fourth graders only. Making Schools Work fails to mention a second test program which is conducted statewide. This test program—the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS)—is administered in the third and sixth grades all over the state. And on this measure, Centennial’s scores seem to be far below the state norm. Claims of “small revolutions” to the side, the school’s reading scores seem very much like what one would expect from a low-income, deeply-challenged school—from a school in which a hard-working staff works to serve a bunch of beautiful kids from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds.

What’s going on in Centennial’s sixth grade? Here are the school’s sixth grade ITBS reading scores, along with the corresponding statewide figures. The state reports these scores in percentiles. In 2005, for example, the median kid in the state of Washington scored at the 54th percentile on the Iowa reading test. The median kid at Centennial scored far below, at the 35th percentile:

Centennial (and state) sixth-grade reading scores, in percentiles
2000: Centennial 48 (state of Washington 54)
2001: Centennial 40 (state of Washington 53)
2002: Centennial 43 (state of Washington 54)
2003: Centennial 44 (state of Washington 53)
2004: Centennial 33 (state of Washington 53)
2005: Centennial 35 (state of Washington 54)
Centennial seems to be scoring far below the state—and it’s been losing big chunks of ground in the years since “Success for All” started. And uh-oh! The same pattern obtains in third grade, where scores date back to 1999:
Centennial (and state) third-grade reading scores, in percentiles

1999: Centennial 49 (state of Washington 55)
2000: Centennial 51 (state of Washington 56)
2001: Centennial 41 (state of Washington 57)
2002: Centennial 43 (state of Washington 57)
2003: Centennial 45 (state of Washington 58)
2004: Centennial 35 (state of Washington 58)
2005: Centennial 40 (state of Washington 58)
As the state trends slightly up, Centennial trends down—in a major way. In 2004, the last year Making Schools Work considered, Centennial’s third graders scored at the 35th percentile. The state was much higher: 58.

Simply put, these numbers are pretty much what one might expect from a school with a low-income student population. And on the surface, Centennial has been trending down since “Success for All” came in; it has not displayed anything like “a small revolution,” a revolution with “enormous implications for public schools nationwide.” Centennial is full of gorgeous kids; its teachers seem to be cheerful and dedicated. But Making Schools Work did some pickin’-and-choosin’ among the test data, making us think that Centennial has made “remarkable jumps” when the reality seems very different. It’s hard to find the “small revolution” we were promised at the start of Making Schools Work. Instead, the PBS show seemed to pick and choose numbers—numbers designed to make this school (seem to) work.

TOMORROW: More thoughts on that statewide rise in the WASL. And what’s up with that school in Chicago?

DATA DUMP: All data can be checked at the state web site, the Washington State Report Card. The site is well-designed and thorough. You know what to do—just click here.