Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sol Stern vs. Chris Cerf

Sol Stern Comment in response to Chris Cerf post at Eduwonk

Dear Chris:

Until I saw your piece I didn’t realize that you would be addressing me directly in letter format. My understanding was that we would each write about Mayor Bloomberg’s record on the schools and debate the validity of the alleged test score gains. In my article I didn’t discuss your personal role in the administration’s spin operation and I don’t know why Andrew decided to put the “Dear Chris” salutation on my comments. Never mind. Since you want to make this personal, by all means let’s get personal.

First, let me note the perfect timing here. Just as you were writing your letter accusing me of going “over the top,” the New York Sun reported that it was you who came up with the brilliant idea of creating a DOE “truth squad” to monitor all the education blogs and the parent generated list serves for error. Talk about going over the top for an educator! I assume the parody was unintended when you told Sun reporter Elizabeth Green that you did it “because we believe in the truth.” Nevertheless, I see that some astute parents now have bestowed on you the honorary title of “Minister of Truth.” Indeed, your letter to me reads like standard state propaganda, but it also usefully provides more evidence of what I said in my original post about the administration’s demonstrably false spin on the test scores.

You start out by once again shamelessly claiming credit for the outsized 2002-2003 test score gains. Neither you nor anyone else in the administration has offered a single plausible reason why you should get that credit, but you just keep repeating the canard over and over again. Later in your letter you say that the Mayor and Chancellor “instituted important changes during that [first] year,” but you neglect to tell us what those changes were and how they could have affected the tests given in January 2003. I am waiting with baited breath for more details, just as I have been waiting since I first raised this issue two years ago.

In your letter you also improperly lump together test scores on all six grades (3-8) from 2002 to the present. You know, of course, that the state education department has officially declared that the NCLB mandated tests for grades 3-8, first given in 2006, should not be compared to tests administered prior to that year. (Before 2006 the city gave its own tests in grades 3, 5, 6 and 7.) That you would nonetheless go ahead and compare these two completely different data sets is an even more brazen example of how far the education department is willing to go to make the mayor look good politically. Absent this inappropriate comparison, there is no basis for your claim that there has been a significant narrowing of the gap between the city and the rest of the state. It also nullifies all your statements about closing the black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps. Moreover, if you actually followed the state education department’s guidance on this and compared only the scores from 2006 to 2008 in grades 3-8 you would see that three out of four of the state’s other big city school districts made greater test score gains than New York City. Yet none of those districts have adopted the “sophisticated accountability system” that you boast about elsewhere in your letter.

I didn’t raise the graduation rate issue in my first post, but since you bring it up here, let me say that there is no reason to trust the incoherently presented data in your letter or, indeed, any graduation data officially released by the DOE. So far, no independent scholar or data agency has confirmed the administration’s claims and, given your record of fudging test score data for political gain, there is good reason for extreme suspicion. Even if I believed that thousands more were now graduating, as you assert, there is more reason than ever to question the value of the diploma the graduates are receiving. While the administration has eliminated social promotion in some elementary school grades (a policy I supported) it seems to have instituted a more pernicious form of social promotion in the 12th grade. It does this by giving more and more students an accommodation known as “seat time,” in which they are given credit for courses they flunked just by showing up for a few extra Saturday sessions. Recently, the City University of New York became so concerned with the lack of academic preparation of the city’s graduates who actually have Regents diplomas that it unilaterally raised the passing standard on the Regents tests that are necessary for admission to the four year colleges.

As I said in my original post, the administration’s constant puffing of “amazing” and “fantastic” gains on the state tests will eventually turn out very badly for current students. One day they will face serious intellectual and academic challenges and suddenly realize they are not as “proficient” as the Bloomberg-controlled school system told them they were.

But this administration has been even more irresponsible in trying to muddy up the integrity of the NAEP tests – and merely for the short term political gain of the mayor. The fact is that we never heard a peep out of the DOE about NAEP until the 2007 tests confirmed the lack of progress for city students in three out of four benchmark tests over four years. The only thing that got your attention was a front page article in the New York Times describing the flat NAEP scores and raising questions about the reliability of the state tests. This was a threat to the mayor’s political ambitions. Not liking the news brought by the messenger, the administration then launched its multi million dollar PR machine on a search and destroy mission against the only gold standard tests the nation’s schools have. You repeat all that silly stuff here, saying NAEP “is not ‘high stakes,’ not based on state standards, and given to a comparatively small sample.”

It’s embarrassing that a high education official has to be reminded that if we didn’t have sampling (even “small samples”) there would be no social science research. It is true, as you say, that NAEP isn’t a “high stakes” test, which is all to the good. Unlike the DOE, the NAEP has no “stake,” political or otherwise, in higher scores. And that is why the NCLB legislation said that NAEP should serve as a monitor on state tests that might be (in fact are) dumbed down to avoid the law’s sanctions. It’s also why Senator Ted Kennedy and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings now favor requiring states to publish NAEP results alongside the results of their own tests. By the way, Chris, NAEP’s low stakes and small samples didn’t seem to stop Atlanta, MA and other places from making significant gains.

Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein proudly count themselves as members of an accountability and market driven education movement. But for its own integrity that movement absolutely requires NAEP to continue performing its role as the “nation’s report card.” What our experience in New York proves is that politically ambitious mayors and school leaders will try to use their power as keepers of the data to advance their personal agendas at the expense of the public’s need to know the truth about student academic performance. Without NAEP as a monitor for every state’s test scores, such political exploitation of achievement data is even more likely to happen. As I said at the end of my original post, Chris, the trend being established in New York and which you have had such a prominent role in, will turn into a disaster for the nation’s education reform movements. If you don’t turn off the spin machine many will even conclude that education reform, like the blob itself, has become just another education industry racket.

Sol Stern

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