by Robert Pondiscio
May 4th, 2009

Former Ed Secy Margaret Spellings is the latest boldface name in the edusphere to say last week’s NAEP numbers show that NCLB is working.  Over at Common Core, Diane Ravitch takes a close look at the numbers and says, er…not so fast.  Her takeaway:

First, our students are making gains, though not among 17-year-olds. Second, the gains they have made since NCLB are smaller than the gains they made in the years preceding NCLB. Third, even when they are significant, the gains are small. Fourth, the Long Term Trend data are not a resounding endorsement of NCLB. If anything, the slowing of the rate of progress suggests that NCLB is not a powerful instrument to improve student performance.

The different takes on the NAEP tells Checker Finn that what we really need is an independent education-achievement audit agency “to sort out the claims and counterclaims about student performance and school achievement.” 

Advocates always do this sort of thing—reaching for whichever data they think make the most convincing case for their accomplishments, exertions and assertions (and, of course, making or implying causations that no reputable scientist would accept). This will continue. And usually the advocates get away with it because anybody who disputes their claims is also seen as having his/her own ax to grind. That’s why America would be so much better off with an independent education-performance audit bureau.

A fine idea, but like a newspaper ombudsman or “public editor,” there will always be some question about how one’s judgement is colored by the interest of whoever is signing the check.  Apropos of which, I keep running into this quote from David Simon, the creator of The Wire. 

 ”You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America – school test scores, crime stats, arrest stats – anything that a politician can run on [or] anything that somebody can get a promotion on, and as soon as you invent that statistical category 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is.”

Sounds cynical, I know.  But hard to argue.