Monday, October 26, 2009

KossSteve Comments on Flat Earth Society: column by Andy Wolf

The recently released NAEP Mathematics results showing virtually no progress among New York State students should engender serious doubt in the public mind over the State’s and City’s extravagant claims of unparalleled educational progress in recent years. In an October 24 posting (“The Flat Earth Society”) in the New York Sun, columnist Andrew Wolf wrote:
Last year, replying to Sol Stern in an online debate published on the blog Eduwonk, Mr. Cerf proclaimed, “While the NAEP is important evidence of progress, it is not ‘high stakes,’ not based on state standards, and given to a comparatively small sample. At minimum, the significance of the NAEP needs to be considered in the larger context of state tests, which are high-stakes and are taken by all.”
For anyone involved in or concerned about pre-college education in the State or City of New York (administrators, teachers, students, parents, college admissions officers, or employers), this statement by Christopher Cerf (a former deputy chancellor at the DOE!) is nothing short of a nightmare, an inadvertent admission of educational ignorance and irrefutable evidence of a horrifying lack of common sense. Let’s take a moment to analyze Mr. Cerf’s three objections to the relevance of the NAEP (exams which, by the way, are commonly accepted as the gold standard of American educational measurement):
“…it [the NAEP] is not ‘high stakes’”
This is a simply extraordinary statement that effectively argues the merits of high stakes tests as the only ones that count, as if students (and their teachers) do not and will not take any other kinds of measurements seriously enough to validate them. This despite years of sociological research supporting Campbell’s Law, which states that, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” In other words, the higher the stakes, the more likely people will be to do things (overemphasize the measured areas at the expense of other areas, under-report negative events, or simply lie or cheat) that make the resulting measurements meaningless. Annual state testing in NYC public schools has come to reflect just these types of self-corrupting behaviors.
In reality, Mr. Cerf’s statement is a coded way of saying, “We (the Mayor and the DOE) have no way to exert pressure on principals and teachers to drill and prep students endlessly for the NAEP. If we can’t use that test to threaten principals’ bonuses, teachers’ jobs, or a school’s continued existence enough to make them do whatever it takes to show results, then it simply isn’t relevant to the reality we’ve decided to construct.” They (the Bloomberg DOE) want to measure preparation for rote regurgitation in response to questions on the same narrow scope, of the same form, and of nearly the same content year after year; the NAEP measures knowledge and understanding and is intelligently constructed to measure a wide range of grade-appropriate content. Which do you trust as a measure of mathematics education?
“[it is] not based on state standards”
Whose state standards define what mathematics children should know? Mississippi’s? North Carolina’s? California’s, Indiana’s, Massachusetts’, Alabama’s? On what basis does Mr. Cerf believe that New York’s are better, or that this state’s assessment of those standards is better? It is already common knowledge that nearly every state has lowered its assessments and/or its proficiency bars in the absurd NCLB race for Lake Wobegon-style, one hundred percent proficiency by 2014.
In any event, why should state standards not be adequate for students to measure well against any professionally-developed test of mathematics knowledge. Mathematics understanding should not depend on whether a child lives in West Virginia, Colorado, or New York.
I can’t help wondering if Mr. Cerf has ever deigned to take a look at the sample questions the National Center for Education Statistics publishes on their website, just to get a sense of what it means to claim that the NAEP is inapplicable to New York State’s children. As someone who believes you should argue from facts, I’ve looked at them – as they do after every exam, they have released a new set of sample questions (31 Grade 4 questions, 34 Grade 8 questions). Speaking as a former math teacher, they are marvelous, beautifully constructed to elicit underlying math understanding and knowledge independent of “state standards” and curricula or textbooks used. I see nothing in them that I wouldn’t want my fourth or eighth grade child able to answer by that age and grade level.
Here’s one nice example from Grade 8: “A certain even number is divisible by 9. This number is between 100 and 120. What is the number?” How can Mr. Cerf honestly assert that it’s unreasonable to think that a NYC eighth grade student should not be prepared to answer this question?
“[it is] given to a comparatively small sample”
This objection is the most blatantly outrageous of the three, either a measure of the speaker’s utter lack of mathematical education or (still worse) a hypocritical perpetuation of the fallacy (believed by far too many) that the only statistically valid surveys come from enormous sample populations if not the entire population. Yet Mr. Cerf would no doubt be quick to defend any legitimate survey of New Yorkers (usually constructed from interviews of no more than 1,200 citizens) showing the Mayor’s popularity, his lead over his opponent in the upcoming election, or his contention that New Yorkers favor his education policies (thanks to millions of dollars of DOE and other money spent on endlessly upbeat and often (deliberately) factually misleading public relations.
One can only hope that the only a “comparatively small sample” of New Yorkers will vote in a mayor-for-life in the coming election and, when he shuts the door behind him, the Mayor makes sure that hangers-on like Mr. Cerf are where they usually are: close behind him.

To build on the metaphor offered by the Daily News and continued by Andy Wolf, educationally speaking, we’re not only sailing toward the edge of the flat earth, we’re being piloted there – complete with deranged laughter -- by obsessed, Ahab-like captain Michael Bloomberg and his lieutenants like Joel Klein and Chris Cerf. Even worse, thanks to the likes of Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan, other ships are gleefully following us right over the edge.

Steve Koss

-----Original Message-----
To: nyc education news>
Sent: Sun, Oct 25, 2009 9:53 am
Subject: [nyceducationnews] Flat Earth Society: column by Andy Wolf

another excellent column by Andy Wolf, which reveals the stunning fact that Chris Cerf was a recent candidate for NY State Ed Commissioner. What a coup that would have been for the Bloomberg/Klein forces -- and the end of any hope for keeping them accountable.

Flat Earth Society

By ANDREW WOLF | October 24, 2009
No sooner did the Daily News lambast critics of Mayor Bloomberg’s educational program as “flat earth” adherents than the federal NAEP math test released its results, which undermine the mayor’s claims for academic improvements on his watch.
It seems that New York’s NAEP scores have been stagnating, despite the fact that scores on the state tests, on which the mayor bases his claims, have been soaring. It’s surprising to see the editors of the New York’s Picture Newspaper miss this frame of reference, as they did, in an editorial on Sunday October 18.
They opine that the NAEP results are for the state, not the city. Aside from the fact that the city makes up a big part of the state, they miss one critical point. The disparity between the state test results and NAEP is so wide as to cast doubt on the state testing program in every corner of the Empire State from Buffalo to Montauk as well as in our five boroughs.
To base any evaluation of our schools on bogus testing — and even pay bonuses (with your tax dollars) on the basis of the state scores — is nonsensical. The education expert Diane Ravitch suggests that the new leadership at the State Education Department fire those responsible. I would urge a full investigation of who knew what and when about the creation and management of the state testing program, which has millions of young victims.
The NAEP results are certainly bad news for the Bloomberg campaign. If the state scores are bogus, now increasingly accepted as fact, then the Bloomberg education legend is exposed as mythology.
Christopher Cerf, the former deputy chancellor at the Department of Education, was furiously spinning this disastrous news in his new temporary post working in the Bloomberg reelection effort. Mr. Cerf, according to the New York Times, “said that when the New York City numbers become public, they could show that city students outperformed their peers in the rest of the state.” The Gray Lady quoted him as saying: “It would be impossible to draw any conclusions about New York City’s progress at this point.”
Mr. Cerf has a history in spinning NAEP results, which have never been particularly kind to Tweed. Last year, replying to Sol Stern in an online debate published on the blog Eduwonk, Mr. Cerf proclaimed, “While the NAEP is important evidence of progress, it is not ‘high stakes,’ not based on state standards, and given to a comparatively small sample. At minimum, the significance of the NAEP needs to be considered in the larger context of state tests, which are high-stakes and are taken by all.”
Parent activist Leonie Haimson pointed out in a comment on Mr. Cerf’s posting at the time that the fact that the NAEP is not “high stakes” makes the results all the more reliable.
Mr. Cerf was merely reprising the comments of the former state education commissioner, Richard Mills, which I reported in the New York Sun nearly two years ago on December, 21, 2007. “Given that NAEP and state tests, as well as the related standards, are prepared separately, it's inevitable that national and state results will be different. In some states the difference is large, while it's small in others. This presents an obvious question for the public and policy makers: which results are correct?"
I went on to state that “Mr. Mills believes that the lower standards exhibited by the New York state/NAEP gap, among the widest gaps in the nation, are more accurate and goes on to give a list of reasons. These include the remarkable claim that ‘teachers and students perceive that stakes are high for performance on the New York tests and students are encouraged to do their best. There are no consequences to a school or a student from NAEP.’”
Given the similarity in the points of view of Messrs. Mills and Cerf, it might well be appropriate to thank those Regents who rebuffed the effort to make Mr. Cerf state education commissioner. Surely the pupils in the state are better off with Commissioner David Steiner’s commitment to high standards and real reform.
If the children of New York State, and those here in the city, are to get the education they deserve — and NAEP tells us they are not getting it — we need real reform, not smoke and mirrors. For if the earth is as flat as the Daily News says, we are currently sailing for the edge.

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