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Reading scores a bore, but help Rhee

My colleagues Nick Anderson and Bill Turque have done a wonderfully balanced and nuanced report on the latest reading scores nationally and in D.C. The big story from my twisted perspective is that a certain person who bet me $50 that D.C. School Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee would be gone by this summer is going to lose that money.

That's about all the excitement I could get out of this latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Nationally, it revealed a 1-point gain in eighth grade average reading scores from 2007 to 2009 on a 500-point scale, but no gain in fourth grade scores. This can be read as an epitaph for No Child Left Behind. During its tenure as the nation's major education program it experienced slight increases in reading and math but nothing to stop the Obama administration and Congress from tearing it up and trying something new.

The 5-point jump in fourth grade reading scores in D.C. was more interesting, if for no other reason than Rhee's approval ratings have been falling in surveys of D.C. residents. Some people thought Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) might dump her to get reelected this year, or might himself lose the election because of that growing unhappiness with her aggressive management style. But a 5-point score jump at a time when the national scores are flat is more than enough to keep Rhee safe for another year or two at least, if she wants to keep the job, which she says she does.

We journalists have to write stories about these two-year score comparisons because the federal government puts them out and readers have fun imposing their biases on the results. But they don't mean much. You need several years to determine if a change in education policy is working, and even then the results are usually inconclusive. We as usual will keep making school issues by instinct and politics, and hope for the best.

My favorite part of the Anderson/Turque story was the last paragraph where they report that Kentucky's reading scores went up 4 points for fourth-graders and 5 points for eighth -raders, beating all other states. Unfortunately for us pundits, amateur and professional, "Kentucky appears to have no especially unusual program for reading that others lack," the story sadly admits.

Desperate for something to say with no new initiative to promote, the Kentucky education department spokeswoman decided to belabor the obvious: "It's our teachers," she said. That is true, of course, but it really doesn't give us much to argue about, so it's a big disappointment.

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By Jay Mathews  | March 24, 2010; 11:44 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  DC reading scores up, Kentucky gains but doesn't know why, Mathews to win bet, Rhee's job secure, boring reading scores, national reading scores flat  
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We journalists have to write stories about these two-year score comparisons because the federal government puts them out...
Interesting comment in a nation where the policy is put so much focus on standardized testing and the national tests are the only real standardized testing in the nation.

The article in the Washington Post said the scores stalled but the reality is that in many states the scores went down in 4th grade reading. Minn, Mass, NJ, Wisconsin, Washington.

At some point the Department of Education might realize that for Reading there is no "teach to the test" that works.

If the US continues in absurdity the scores in Reading in 2011 will also show decreases.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 24, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Jay Mathews helps readers to understand his philosophy in writing articles. Based on this philosophy it appears that Jay Mathews would be writing articles supporting the burning of books if it was politically acceptable.

Reading scores a bore, but help Rhee
By Jay Mathews | March 24, 2010

We journalists have to write stories about these two-year score comparisons because the federal government puts them out and readers have fun imposing their biases on the results.

We as usual will keep making school issues by instinct and politics, and hope for the best.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 24, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Let me guess. Was it Turque that lost the $50?

Posted by: cbl99201 | March 24, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

I am very interested in the segregation of these scores into public vs charter schools. since Ms. Rhee is wanting to take credit for increases, I want to know which of those increases belong rightfully to the schools over which she holds sway. If the DCPS scores rose and it is clearly within the time fram attributable to her leadership, I will be happy to give credit. But I want to see it. We have been hearing for some time that the numbers support a tale of success - both in numbers of students and in scores. Tell us the facts please. That's what reporters do.

Posted by: quest4justice1 | March 24, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse

I agree with quest4justice1. How typical of Jay Matthews to jump on Rhee's bandwagon before the data is even out! Last I checked charter schools make up 47% of DC students. But, why would "balanced" reporting and analysis be in this column? Joking aside, it is disgraceful and unprofessional to credit Rhee before we even see DCPS broken out separately. Maybe Mr. Matthew's bet a lot more than $50, so he has to do all he can to keep Rhee in office.

Posted by: mfalcon | March 24, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

Will Jay send that $50 to Squier Knapp Dunn to help improve Miss Rhee's image in this election year?????

As for "the Kentucky education department spokeswoman decided to belabor the obvious: "It's our teachers," she said. That is true, of course, "
I wonder if Miss Rhee would do the same, considering the gains in DCPS have been going on all decade.

(PS. Will there be a write-up on the Post education poobahs' shindig up in Montgomery County Wednesday night??)

Posted by: edlharris | March 25, 2010 12:07 AM | Report abuse

I went to the NAEP data and find the following element of reading skills: illiteracy.

Grade 4 reading, for Black students in DC public schools (sorry, no differentiation between charters and DCPS is possible):

< basic
09 63% +- 1.5
07 67% +- 1.5

Grade 8 reading
< basic

09 49% +-1.1
07 52% +-1.1

Note that for 8th graders there was a nationwide decline from 42% to 40% in % reading below basic. So, the slight 3% DC reduction in illiteracy is statistically no different than the 2% national public school improvement for Black students.

Posted by: incredulous | March 25, 2010 2:05 AM | Report abuse

Although I value the ideal of a free press, it is disturbing to think of all the useless chatter and "argument" around education policy. If half the people involved in it would roll their sleeves up and actually grind it out with students each day (1-1 tutoring, for example), then many gaps could be filled. What's more, these "pundits" make far more than average teachers. Just a view from the classroom where the actual struggle takes place every minute of every day.

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | March 25, 2010 5:58 AM | Report abuse

I predicted a while back that if the scores went up, Rhee would take full credit and if they went down, she would use it as ammunition to fire more teachers.

Let's keep in mind that her "reform" of firing teachers (via RIF, letting go provisional teachers who don't have tenure)didn't start until after the '09 NAEP tests were given, meaning these scores came from the very group of teachers she's been maligning nationally.

I hope you make that point soon, Jay. I also hope you look inside the stats to see just what's going on.

Posted by: efavorite | March 25, 2010 7:07 AM | Report abuse

breaking news for efavorite, from yesterday's DCPS release:

"We continue to stand in awe of our 4th graders who have again outpaced the nation in growth --and their teachers who have led the students to this accomplishment."

--Chancellor Rhee

Now, how shall we parse this statement to make it into something not at all generous, but rather completely self-serving, cynical, underhanded, and wrapped up in a sulfurous fog of megalomania?

1. Chancellor Rhee never said this, is not even capable of forming these thoughts, and this press release is the first expensive bonbon from her new $100,000 image buffer.

2. Chancellor Rhee did say this, but she had her fingers crossed behind her back.

3. Chancellor Rhee knows that behind that veneer of reading progress are some ugly and distorted statistics, and she is attempting to deflect the credit. This is so that when the raw statistics are revealed, and are processed through the Vandenburg filter, the resulting vituperation might be slightly refracted away from her.

You don't need to pick one. You can pick all three. Personally, I think it's number 2.

Posted by: gardyloo | March 25, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Forensic analysis has revealed that:

efavorite = gardyloo


Posted by: axolotl | March 25, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Ok, go see for yourselves at:

DC 4th grade reading scores:

2003-2005 increase of 3 points, from 188 to 191

2005-2007 increase of 6 points, from 191 to197

2007-2009: increase of 5 points, from 197 to 202

So the rate of increase from is down 1% from ‘05 to ‘07

Gardyloo- It looks like your #3 wins, but I think we'll be seeing a #1 type statement soon. Very clever.

Posted by: efavorite | March 25, 2010 10:38 PM | Report abuse

DC 4th grade reading scores on the NAEP relative to the national trend:

03-05 2 points higher (US up 1, DC up 3)
05-07 3 points higher (US up 3, DC up 6)
07-09 5 points higher (US unch., DC up 5)

Posted by: gardyloo | March 26, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

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