February 14, 2008

It's Been a Long Strange Week

I find common ground with Kozol

While debating whether high school graduation rates are a good proxy for improved education outcomes in the U.S., I discover there is a scintilla of common ground between me and Kozol:

Grade level completion does not equal grade level competence.

Might be the only sane thing the man has written.

I find Common Ground with Philip Kovacs

Buried in a lengthy and somewhat confused anti-market diatribe. Education Roundtabler, Philip Kovacs, makes an odd admission:

I don't believe that massive cash infusions can save our schools. Cash would certainly help in places like Butler, where black "stuff" oozes from the ceiling vents, but the issues plaguing many schools cannot be solved with money alone.

Actually, better management of Butler's current funds might be enough to do the trick, but let's not quibble over details.

Of course, Philip thinks the underlying problem is "despair," whatever that means, which needs to be solved with a "broad coalition" with undefined goals.

Nonetheless, common ground. You take it where you can get it.

Maybe Philip will stop by and elaborate. He apparently thinks I owe him an apology for something or other too.

The trouble with snark

I like good snark as much as the next guy. However, when you engage in snark, you better be certain you're got a good position. Preferably a defendable and/or coherent position. Otherwie you look foolish.

The race card gets played

Over at Crooked Timber the subject turns to education and equality, deeply confused commenter Greg Anrig, sensing he's losing the argument, plays a thinly veiled race card.

You haven’t responded with specificity to what I wrote and keep conflating race with income, and home environment with schooling. Put your actual name on your posts and I’ll go through the trouble of putting together a bibliography. I would understand, though, if you felt that might not be helpful to your career.

You stay classy, Greg.

The opposition should take some lessons from frequent commenter Stephen Downes who, though we often disagree, takes the effort to justify and find support for his arguments. By doing so, he moves the discussion forward and we all learn a little bit and thereby adjust our positions accordingly. At least that's the theory.

In any event, it's my birthday today, so I'll play nice and go easy on the opposition at least for today. So, if you've been afraid to comment for fear of being smacked down, I have the kid gloves for the rest of today.

By the way, go read this speech, Complexity Theory and Environmental Management, by Michael Crichton. The problems of Yellowstone Park are similar to the problems in Education.


Stephen Downes said...

Happy birthday.

> Grade level completion does not equal grade level competence.

I doubt that anyone seriously maintains thy are equal. For one thing, this would make the difference between passing with a 95 and passing with a 66 meaningless, which I don't think anyone asserts.

But I think we can say this: Grade level completion approximates grade level competence.

There is a difference between passing grade 1 and passing grade 12. A person with only grade 1 abilities would not pass grade 12. Therefore, passing grade 12 represents some level of achievement, and is not, as a number of commentators has attempted to suggest, meaningless.

Casting some doubt on the specificity of a measure - such as the weight of a grade 12 diploma - does not convert empirical data into non-data. The doubling of the percentage of high school graduates over 50 years, and the quadrupuling of university graduates, are empirical data that cannot be simply argued away.

They represent a substantial improvement in the lives and well-being of millions of people, and are concordant with the rise in affluence of those people over the same time.

Anonymous said...

Grade level completion approximates grade level competence.

Well, my middle school routinely graduates functionally illiterate students. They also graduate students who fail math all 12 marking periods for which they are in the school (3 years x 4 marking periods per year). Social promotion is alive and well; here's how it works:

In 6th grade, the holdovers go to summer school. It is extremely hard to hold them over, as we are encouraged to push them along despite poor test scores and an inability to multiply 5 by 7.

In 7th grade it is a bit harder to get by. The NYS test scores rule, and if you fail either English or math you go to summer school. Fail them again and you get held over. Problem is, the tests are so incredibly easy, that a passing grade is easy to come by, so even students who cannot string together two coherent sentences can get by. A few get left back, but they never get held over two years in a row.

In 8th grade the pressure to pass the students is extreme. A principal has openly advocated for doing so in order to be rid of the problem children for good (why should the 8th grade teachers subject themselves to another year of torture?).

The end result: A meaningless -- yes, meaningless middle school diploma for many, many students. Even the competent, college-bound students will need some catch-up courses to make up for all the time wasted by their fellow students.

The doubling of the percentage of high school graduates over 50 years, and the quadrupuling of university graduates, are empirical data that cannot be simply argued away. They represent a substantial improvement in the lives and well-being of millions of people, and are concordant with the rise in affluence of those people over the same time.

Might there be other explanations for the rise in affluence?

Anonymous said...

BTW: What I described above is par for the course in my district; likely the whole city as well.

Anonymous said...

NYC math, it's common in my district as well.

It's true that you likely won't get a high school diploma with Grade 1 skills. But you can graduate with fourth grade skills. It's not easy to calculate exactly how many do. However, we do know what skills kids have leaving middle school. Only a very tiny minority of our graduating students are at an eighth grade level. At least half are at a fourth grade level or lower in all subject areas -- reading, writing, math. We have tested several successive cohorts (in-house with norm-referenced measures, not just the district "criterion based assessments")and the results were similar every year. Our standardized tests results are right around the district average. So, many schools are worse than we are.

At a local college a couple of the English faculty report that students routinely enter with written English skills at a fifth grade level or lower -- and these are kids who got good grades in high school and are shocked to find that they are considered "remedial" cases!

When they have to take non-credit courses -- for which they are paying tuition -- to learn what they should have been taught in elementary school, some get very angry. Others just drop out.

KDeRosa said...

Thanks, Stephen.

Grade level completion approximates grade level competence.

Is this necessarily true if the schools have basically lowered the standard so much so as to render the standard meaningless. The teachers are saying that you can pass 12th grade with a 4th grade level of achievement. The NAEP scores confirm that nothing much has changed achievement-wise since the early 70s. Table 6 of this paper suggests that the number of 14 to 17 years still in schools has only increased from 89% to 96%.

KDeRosa said...

Will wonders never cease. Here's Bracey on the topic of SAT verbal decline.

I am convinced, however, that there is something more at work in the decline of the SAT verbal scores than just demographic shifts. The percent of students scoring above 600 on the SAT verbal also fell in the mid-seventies from 11.4 to 7.2 percent. Since the number of test takers has remained virtually constant, this fall cannot be the result of adding more students at the low end of the scale. Moreover, scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading tests corroborate the SAT results: The percentage of students scoring high on NAEP reading has also declined somewhat.

Anonymous said...

"I am convinced, however, that there is something more at work in the decline of the SAT verbal scores than just demographic shifts."

Dr. Donald Hayes believed that a simplification of the vocabulary in textbooks was a cause.

One of his paper's on the subject, "Schoolbook Simplification and Its Relation to the Decline in SAT-Verbal Scores" is easily readable by non-academics.


I think he is/was on to something.

-Mark Roulo

KDeRosa said...

Nice find, Mark. The historical SAT data is consistent with other articles I've found today.

Stephen Downes said...

Even the critics say "It's true that you likely won't get a high school diploma with Grade 1 skills."

Those arguing against the proposition are offering only anecdotal or single-case evidence. High school math, certainly, tells us that this is insufficient.

There is a lot of scepticism about the quality of graduates. For example, this sentiment seems common: "But you can graduate with fourth grade skills."

However, if we are to believe the NAEP scores, brought forward earlier in an effort to refute my argument, then the 17-year-olds are in fact not operating at a Grade 4 level.

The NAEP enrollment statistics also show an increase over the years of 17-year-olds remaining in schools. That said, many of those 17-year-olds that did not graduate 50 years ago graduate today.

So: you can't simply say that the schools are graduating illiterate students. The surveys don't support this. The 17-year-olds remaining in school are not illiterate, at least, no more so than they were 50 years ago. So a graduate today is no worse than a graduate of 50 yeas ago.

If you wish to repudiate the NAEP test results, that's fine; remember, these test results were one of two major statistical arguments (the SAT scores were the other) intended to refute my argument.

No data has been brought forward to refute the statistics showing substantially greater graduation rates today than 50 years ago (and huge increases in college completion, which none of the commentators have yet touched).

KDeRosa said...

The NAEP scores tell a different story. The argument is that standards were lowered from the late sixties and have remained low to this day. This is the period captured by the NAEP. The data is thin before this time, except for SAT scores. Take a look at the reference Mark R cited shich argued, like I did, that that there was a large drop starting in 1963 while the population of test takers remained steady at 1 million.

Looking at scale scores, the bottom 10th percentile of 12th graders are performing like the average 4th grader. The bottom 25th percentile is performing like the avergae 8th grader. These scores were steady since 1971. The NCES, table 6, I referred to previously shows that number of 17 year old remaining in school has remained firm over this period at about 95%, rising from 89% during the late fifties.

Also, this source, first table, shows the high school graduates
as a percentage of 17 year olds was 69.5 in 1960 and 70.6 in 2000. An insignificant change. Your source is for 25 year olds which most likely also counts alternate graduation means, like the GED.

College completion rates have increased, most likley as a result of increased affluence and easier available of student aid. There is no comparable evidence regarding the perfromance of these students. So your argument amounts to more seat time equals improved academic performance which is thin.

KDeRosa said...

That 2nd paragraph refers to NAEP scores.

Anonymous said...


It is true that I only offered an anecdote. I mentioned it not as irrefutable proof of anything, just a compelling side-story to Ken's data.

You, however, are arguing causality when all that exists is correlation. Substantially greater graduation rates today versus 50 years ago is a meaningless statistic in the absence of a true measure of the abilities of these graduates. High school math, indeed, covers the difference.

Sherman Dorn said...

Belated happy birthday!

KDeRosa said...

Thanks, Sherman.