Statistics and the Yawning Gap

Jul 8, 2019 by

The New York Post, which injects fresh outrage into stale education stories, has revived an old body of evidence from its morgue.

Coursing through their muckraking vein is the strange paradox of  why almost all students in certain middle schools failed state exams in the same subject areas as those in which they aced classroom instruction and were graded accordingly.

There’s no doubt that the disparity is shocking but what is its relevance, if any? 

Is it like comparing “apples and oranges”, as DOE spokeswoman Danielle Filson, claims?  Her view is that since the test is only two hours long and the academic year is ten months in duration, there are no disquieting hypotheses to be made.

Maybe so. But I suspect there’s some kind of rotten fruit somewhere and it is likely rooted in DOE soil, which is very fertile.

When classroom scores are sky-high and standardized tests are in the cellar, there is likely something substantive to the yawning gap.  Some of the cited cases include an instance when 94 percent met the criteria to pass the class but only 2 percent of the same class did not fail the state math exam on the same material.

Another stark illustration indicates 7 percent of students passing a  state ELA exam, though every single kid got credit for sufficient mastery of that curriculum.

Given that most of these kids are minority, the obvious fraud or “grade inflation” suggests “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It patronizes them and sets them up for trouble down the road.

This is not what Chancellor Carranza or anyone else wants, presumably.

There’s a lot of legitimate, research-based criticism of standardized tests. It is also a valid argument that class participation, evaluative tools, special assignments and homework present a more well-rounded and humane picture.

But does that ensure that such multiple measures are more reliable and accurate?

Who among us would with our beloved families board an aircraft, brave Nature at 35,000 feet at peace with the assurance that the pilot was  passed by a sympathetic subjective instructor, even though performance trials indicated fitness only for kamikaze work?

There can be no doubt that “grade inflation” is rampant.

Sometimes it is due to teachers’ bending over backwards to seem compassionate and inclusive, which is misguided condescension. Other times it can be attributable to a genuine leniency or occasionally lack of knowledge on the part of the teacher who may not be expert in that subject area.

But I think the truth is far grimmer than that.

The DOE, from chancellor all the way down the chain of command, is transmitting unmistakable signals to subordinates that their career stability and, in some instances professional existence, depends on not “rocking the boat”, keeping things off “the radar screen” and “playing the game” so as not to provoke pushy parents, self-styled “child advocates” and others in the bureaucracy whether at its heart or within its periphery. 

Schools, principals, teachers, and even superintendents are rated according to statistics, and at every step and wrung, they will retaliate against any person who makes their lives difficult, regardless of motives and whether they are justified.

The integrity of the statistics cannot be effectively argued even when they are wrong, as long as the “numbers game” is the currency of educational debate, is the tool of ideological commerce and policy-makers have the power to conjure official reality any way they want.

If teachers depend on their careers for their family’s sustenance and a decent lifestyle, and they keep getting bombarded with the message that all they have to do is play along and pretend not to notice all the absurdity that hits them  without relief and from every direction, they will heel because survival is the overriding imperative.

Such is life.  And nobody should blame teachers for preserving their own.

Ron Isaac

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