The Seattle Moment

30 Jan

How Well Did Jimi Do on His Tests?In the wake of Seattle’s famed Garfield High School’s decision by its teachers’ union not to give standardized MAP tests, opponents often raise the issue of international comparisons.

Yeah, it makes me laugh. For one, the international comparison, he actually doesn’t understand or isn’t actually portraying that correctly. There was a very recent study by Carnoy and Rothstein that showed that if you compare international test scores and you account for poverty, you can actually find that U.S. students compare quite well to the highest-performing countries around the world. And so, making that—like, his perspective on that actually doesn’t read that test data correctly.

That Carnoy and Rothstein has been ridiculed for its methodology.

Analyzing PISA data, Carnoy and Rothstein argue that the U.S. educates its disadvantaged students about as well as similar nations—and, for that, America should be praised. But the problems with the study are myriad. First, the authors use a “very approximate” index—the number of books in a student’s home—to determine social class. Others have explained the methodological flaws with this approach. Second, the authors engage in some dangerous statistical gymnastics to prove their point: Based on the assumption that students of low “social class” bring down average U.S. scores, Carnoy and Rothstein re-estimate PISA attainment (by using the books-in-the-home index) to norm the proportion of students in each class. They find that, if the U.S. had the same proportion of students in lower social classes as other nations, then it would rank fourth in reading (instead of fourteenth) and tenth in math (instead of twenty-fifth). The conclusions of this report only affirm the very significant education problem that it’s trying to downplay: We have a greater proportion—and a significantly greater number—of low-scoring and low-income students than other OECD countries. Carnoy’s and Rothstein’s flawed analysis and misleading primary conclusion is at best a diversionary ploy.

Is the number of books in a home the best criterion for rating education?

These facts are worrisome. Student reports of books in the home was found to be a good predictor of student achievement back in the 1960s by James Coleman and his colleagues, and many researchers have found similar results ever since. But serious scholars do not treat the correlation as causal, as reports of books in the home may be as much a consequence of good schools and innate student ability as an independent cause of student achievement. Students who find it easy to read are likely to report more books in their home, because they are more aware of them. Students attending an effective school are more likely to be good readers who are then aware of the resources at home. Countries that expect students to perform well on a national examination when they finish secondary school may induce higher rates of reading than countries that do not set clear standards for high school students.

In short, book buying and book reading can be as much a consequence of good schools that educate young people as a cause. If students learn to read, they consume more books and they are likely to be more aware of what’s available within the household. Further, a national culture that emphasizes learning and knowledge induces the acquisition of educational resources. Note that only 14 percent of Korean students come from few-book homes, as compared to 38 percent of U. S. students. Note that 31 percent of Korean students come from homes with many books, while only 18 percent of American students do. To Carnoy and Rothstein these data show that the lower class is nearly three times as large in the United States as in Korea. Even more bizarre, they want us to think the Korean upper class is nearly twice as big as that of the United States. If that is correct, one must expect a major migration from the United States to Korea.

Social class? Family reading habits? Immigration? Diversity? Portfolios? Tests are so clean and simple. Aw hell, just write a bubble test and leave the hard questions to the experts!

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