2010-09-24 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

‘The More Numbers Are Used For Political Purposes, The More They Will Be Manipulated’
Commentary By Howard Schwach

There is a well documented theory called Campbell’s Law, because it was discovered and documented by sociologist Donald Campbell,

Campbell’s Law holds, essentially, that the more numbers are used for political purposes, the more they will be manipulated by politicians and the more they will distort the policy decisions they were supposed to inform.

Mark Gimein, writing the Intelligencer column for New York magazine in the September 6 edition, pointed out that Campbell’s law perfectly defines what was happening the past few years with the Department of Education’s use of the standardized reading and mathematics tests given to students in grades 3 through 8.

“Last spring, [School Chancellor Joel] Klein was bragging about the extraordinary upswing in scores during his tenure: a 31 percent rise in the percentage of students who passed state reading tests, a 41 percent increase in math. That was before state authorities admitted that they’ve been progressively more lenient in scoring the tests, and decided to grade more strictly. “The new stringency resulted in the elimination of most of the miraculous gains of the Bloomberg years and an administration that had lived by the numbers is now getting clobbered by them.

“Klein told parents that the state ‘now holds students to a considerably higher bar,’ but that would make sense only if the state hadn’t previously been lowering that bar.”

Gimein says that the very measures that get bandied about when policy decisions are being made, whether it be in the area of education or any other area, like those amazing test gains, tend to be the most suspect.

That certainly was true in New York City.

While test scores increased each year, teachers, supervisors and parents looked at those gains and laughed. They knew that the gains were illusionary – pushed by the State Board of Regents to qualify for federal money under the No Child Left Behind Law and by the mayor in order to collect his political capital on the promise that he would turn the public schools around – as measured solely by how well the students were doing on the standardized tests.

Live by the data, die by the data.

Yet, Bloomberg and Klein continue to spin the disastrous test results, telling anybody who will listen that they are glad the state has “raised the bar,” because that will force students to do even better.

The two frauds filter information like nuggets of gold, searching for a nugget of information that will “prove” that they have been a success.

The only ones who are buying their bologna, however, are the editorial boards of the daily papers, who long ago sold out to Bloomberg and are now whollyowned subsidies of Bloomberg The Mayor, Inc.

It’s instructive to see stories in the news pages detailing just how much test scores have fallen and comments from noted educators such as Diane Ravitch detailing just how much the state and city used the flawed scores to pump themselves up, while the editorial pages continue to trumpet the success of education under Bloomberg and the Board of Regents.

It’s mind-boggling to anybody who has spent his or her life in education and understands the game that has been played for the past several years under Bloomberg and Klein. And, it is a high-stakes game for political capital and the big bucks that companies such as Victory Schools get for running the lucrative charter schools that are so valued by the intelligentsia and Manhattan elite.

Gimein points out that the smoke and mirrors extends to the charter schools as well.

By the way, the scores in charter schools fell more quickly and more deeply than those in the public schools when the state finally regained whatever morals it had left and brought the test cut scores – the number of correct answers needed to achieve a certain level – back to what they should have been all along.

For example, when Bloomberg took over the system, a student needed in excess of 40 correct answers on the English Language Arts Grade 8 test to achieve Level 2 – a passing grade. Five years later, that same student needed only 22 correct answers to achieve that level.

Bloomberg has often called the Harlem Village Academies, a group of two middle schools and a high school, a “poster child” for school reform and what could happen should all city kids go to charter schools rather than public schools, which he believes are tainted by the big, bad UFT.

If only we could get students away from the UFT and its contract rules, the mayor has indicated, everything would be utopia and all kids would become wonderful students.

What bologna.

Gimein writes that a study of the Harlem Village Academy found that far fewer students take the eighth grade test than started in the school in the fifth grade.

One of the middle schools had 66 students in its fifth grade class in 2006- 2007. When that class reached the eighth grade three years later, only 19 students took the test. While all of the 19 passed, it’s instructive to ask what happened to the other 47 students. Did they drop out? Were they left back? Did they leave the school and, if so, why? Or, were they being “hidden” by the school because its officials knew that they could not ace the test and did not want to mar their perfect record?

The answers to those questions are important if we are to believe that charter schools are indeed better than public schools, as the mayor and chancellor often say.

Once the numbers are used to prove political success, they are going to be manipulated.

Campbell said it and Bloomberg proved it true.

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