Tag Archives: shyamalan

How Not to Report on Test Scores and Free Lunches

Mother Jones

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Bob Somerby is complaining today about numerical illiteracy among our nation’s elite reporting class. Item 1: the New York Times describes a 10-point improvement among fourth graders on the NAEP test as “small.” In fact, it’s roughly a full grade level. If you think that improving by a full grade level in a single decade is small, you’re either crazy or innumerate.

Item 2: M. Night Shyamalan talks about the fact that American test scores are pretty high in “districts in which the poverty rate was less than 10 percent.” However, the only income data we have for most test takers is related to the National School Lunch Program. Shyamalan is using eligibility for free or reduced meals as a marker of poverty. But it’s not. And since here at MoJo we’re dedicated to lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness, here are the exact eligibility requirements for free and reduced-price lunches in 2013, courtesy of the Agriculture Department:

Obviously, folks eligible for reduced-price meals aren’t exactly swimming in cash. Still, a family of three making $36,000 isn’t anyone’s idea of poverty, and it’s misleading to say so. Eligibility for free meals would be a fairly decent proxy for poverty—they account for about a third of all NSLP meals—but unfortunately that data isn’t collected separately. You either qualify for NSLP or you don’t, and something like two-thirds of all schoolchildren qualify. It’s a pretty broad brush, and there are damn few school districts in which fewer than 10 percent of kids qualify.

FWIW, this is why I’ve never bothered breaking down test scores by income. The only data available is eligibility for NSLP, and between the loose requirements and the virtual nonexistence of verification1, it simply doesn’t mean very much. It can give you a very broad feel for how rich or poor a particular school or district is, but that’s it.

1Which I’m all in favor of, by the way. This is a program that probably doesn’t benefit from tighter scrutiny. Nonetheless, it makes it nearly useless as a proxy for poverty among test takers.

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How Not to Report on Test Scores and Free Lunches

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American Education: It’s Both Better and Worse Than You Think

Mother Jones

On Friday I excerpted an interview with M. Night Shyamalan in which he said that America practices “education apartheid.” If you look at just white kids, he said, “We beat everyone. Our white kids are getting taught the best public-school education on the planet. Those are the facts.”

Bob Somerby calls this “absurdly inaccurate,” and he has a point. Shyamalan is exaggerating, and I sloppily let it pass because I wanted to address what I thought was his primary point. So allow me to revise and expand a bit. Not as an excuse for a hurried post, but just to explain how I view this stuff.

For starters, when I look at international test scores, the first thing I usually do is toss out the scores from most Asian countries. Don’t worry: I don’t expect anyone else to do this, and I’m not claiming that any fair assessment should throw them out. But frankly, I just don’t care how well South Korea does, because I know how they do it. They do it by making their kids’ lives a living hell, schooling them for a dozen hours a day or more and then ruining their lives based on a single day or two of testing when they’re 17. As a result, they get high test scores. But who cares? I think we all know that you can get high test scores by cramming your brains out like that. It tells us nothing, and I very much doubt that it actually produces better-educated adults in the long run. It merely produces kids who can produce eye-popping standardized test scores at age 17.

So I toss out the fabled Asian miracle countries. Then I look at the rest. Do American kids outscore everyone else? Nope. Somerby is right about that. But that’s missing the forest for the trees. Let’s all agree that Shyamalan is both cherry picking a bit and inflating his claims. Two Pinocchios for Shyamalan! Instead, let’s just make the more accurate claim: If you compare America’s white kids to those of most other countries—aggregating all the evidence, not just one or two data points—they do pretty well. Not spectacularly well, but pretty well. I think a fair observer would conclude that these kids were getting a pretty good education. Probably as good or better than most other countries in the world.

And that claim, even though it’s more modest, is important. It means that American education isn’t, either philosophically or foundationally, a disaster area. Nor is it in decline. For most American children, it works fine and it doesn’t need radical changes. Rather, there’s a small subset of American children who have been badly treated for centuries and continues to suffer from this. We do a lousy job of educating them, but it’s not because we don’t know how to educate. We’ve just never been willing to expend the (very substantial) effort it would take to help them catch up.

Anyone who disagrees with this conclusion is welcome to argue about it. But I think it’s one of the paramount facts about education in America. If you ignore it, your diagnosis of our educational problems is almost certain to be badly wrong. In the end, the fact that Shyamalan recognizes this so forthrightly strikes me as more important than the fact that he gets a little too far over his skis when he talks about it.

As for Shyamalan’s proposed five-point plan to fix things, I’ll repeat that I don’t think they’re silver bullets or that they’re unassailable. But as a group, they struck me as pretty reasonable compared to most of the educational reforms that dominate our conversation. For that reason, I welcome his debut into the ed wars.

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American Education: It’s Both Better and Worse Than You Think

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