The New York Times is wrapping up the year with a full-court press on the magical marvels of testing, including a shot today from the editorial board that really does show us a major part of the problem. But not on purpose.
They open with this line:
Teachers unions and other critics of federally required standardized tests have behaved in recent years as though killing the testing mandate would magically remedy everything that ails education in the United States.
Then they go on to talk about testing as though following the testing mandate would magically remedy everything that ails education in the United States.
They make sure to call out the usual villains--look, teachers unions make the very front of the multi-wrong lede. First, teachers unions are hardly the most notable critics of the testing mandate in New York, but the Times has been steadfast in its refusal to see the Opt Out movement as parent-led. Second, nobody has claimed that the end of a testing mandate would fix all that ills public education, particularly ills like poverty and systemic refusal to fully fund schools that are most in need. (Also, "get rid of tests in the early grades"? What early grades, because no federal law has ever reached lower than third grade)
The writer then goes on to complain about weak curriculum and graduation requirements, and at this point a fog of confusion settles over the writer, who seems to believe that no student should graduate from high school unless that student is fully prepared for college. Really? As "proof," the Times offers vague references to "college entrance exams" by which they mean... SAT? ACT? The exam given by the college (either Harvard or Podunk U)? As an example of why this is bad, the writer expresses concern that South Carolina, with its lax graduation requirements, "is producing high school graduates who are not qualified to compete for higher-skilled jobs at companies like Boeing, Volvo and BMW."
Five minutes of googling indicates that they can be less worried. BMW appears ready to add more jobs in South Carolina, and these jobs include Forklift Operator and Production Associate. Production associates must have a year of steady job experience and be able to pass a drug test; they must also be willing to work any day they're called, for a 10-12 hour shift. Forklift operators must have experience operating a forklift. Clearly more AP math courses would help graduates be better-prepared for these jobs.
The NYT has of course completely skipped over the question of students who seek employment in areas that don't require a college degree, just as they've skipped over the question of who determines the need for college remediation, and how.
The editorial board complains that 40% of students are not ready for college math and English, though they offer no source for this figure (which I find kind of incredible from the New York Times). The figure suggests that they've picked up this finding from the NAEP folks, but that's a problem as we've known since 2007 that NAEP doesn't know all that much about college readiness (about half of the students who scored "basic" i.e. "not college ready" went on to achieve bachelors degrees or higher). Or they could have pulled the 40% from this analysis by the ACT folks, which says that only 40% of ACT-takers scored high in at least three of English, reading, math and science. In other words, that math genius who graduated valedictorian from your college but who needed your help to pass Freshman Composition 101-- that guy was count by ACT as "not ready for college."
Sigh. We're not done yet, and we haven't even gotten to the crux of the matter.
But here's the board decrying high school grad's unpreparedness for the military by citing .... a study from 2010! Has nobody looked at this in the last five years? Politifact took a look at this talking point back when Jeb! garbled it in 2014. Here's what the Defense Department had to say:
For the military, the largest single disqualifying factor is health, including such problems as obesity. The estimate for those who are disqualified only because of aptitude is about 2 percent, said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman. That includes not just people who failed the test but also those with other academic deficiencies, such as failure to get a GED.
There are other big chunks of wrong, well-worn and repeatedly gnawed on by commenters, like the old baloney that the teacher unions oppose Common Core (they didn't-- they supported it and continue to do so) and the connected testing because they "did not want to be evaluated based on how much students learned," a statement which ignores the question of whether the Big Standardized Tests actually measure any such thing, and which also ignores the rich and detailed arguments about these points that are all over the interwebs.
So here's the big question? How did the New York Times editorial board get so very much wrong? Does the NYT not have Google? I mean-- here's my New York Times story. One of my oldest friends from here in our small NW PA town now lives in Manhattan, and when he got married years ago, his wedding announcement ran in the NYT. A fact-checker called to verify the name of the business that his mother runs here in our population 7000 town hundreds of miles away. That's the level of commitment to accuracy that I associate with the the NYT.
What's the problem? I think we can find it in these two sentences:
A recent study from Achieve, a nonpartisan organization that works with the states to raise academic standards....
An alarming study by the Education Trust, a nonpartisan foundation...
These are the sources that the NYT relied on? Seriously?
I suppose they are "bi-partisan" in the same way that The Tobacco Institute and most lobbying groups are "bi-partisan." In that sense, the NYT board just stopped short of flat out lying by saying that these two groups are impartial or unbiased. But the Education Trust is a Gates-funded advocacy group from the earliest days of the Core. And Achieve is the organization that "helped" the CCSSO and NGA write the Common Core to begin with-- no organization is more highly invested in the continued support and push of the Core Standards and the tests that are welded to them. And they earlier this month released a report that says-- well, it says pretty much exactly what this editorial says.
In short, the NYT board has done the opposite of journalism here. This belongs with such classics as "Cigarettes Are Totally Good For You" or "US Must Solve Critical New Car Gap." This is endorsing one political candidate without ever actually talking to any of the others.
The problems that face public education are complicated. In fact, right now they're more complicated than ever because we have a muddy mix of actual problems (e.g. poverty, refusal to fully fund), created problems (e.g. charters stripping public schools of resources), and made-up problems (e.g. Oh Nos! Our students aren't taking enough standardized tests!). All of these problems exist at the intersection of larger national issues such as income inequality, systemic racism, and the proper relationship between corporate and citizen interests.
What would help? Information. Correct, well-researched, thoughtful information. If you want to find one of the problems getting in the way of finding a remedy for everything that ails education, a good first step would be for journalists to stop uncritically running the PR of the people who want to dismantle public education and sell off the parts. The NYT did not solve any problems today, and they didn't identify any, either. But they surely provided an example of one of them. Come on, New York Times-- do journalism better.