Tuesday, September 22, 2020
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The meaning of 'at grade level'

The basis of our quote today is the launch of a new website, “The Seventy Four,” by journalist Campbell Brown, which has backing from big money in education and on which the former CNN reporter seeks to advocate for the 74 million schoolchildren in the country. This site has joined the growing list of education “news” websites that don’t shy away from pushing their often money-backed, not science-backed, positions, including for starters, Education Post, Chalkbeat (of Colorado, Tennessee, Indiana, and New York), and the Idaho Education News.

The quote we select isn’t from Ms Brown, but from Diane Ravitch, a famous education historian, author, blogger extraordinaire, and deep critic of the privatization of our public schools. She correctly points out what it means to be “at grade level” when it comes to academic performance, implying—nay, insisting—that people who pull stats out of a hat to use for their own purposes are like the devil quoting scripture for his own purposes. Here’s what she said in a post directed straight at Ms Brown entitled “Advice for Campbell Brown”:

Now, I realize that you are very concerned about the fact that 50% of our students are “below grade level.” I want to make sure you understand that “grade level” means “the median.” It is the midpoint, and it doesn’t have a set meaning. There will always be 50% above grade level, and 50% below grade level. That is the definition of “grade level.”

… The schools and students that really need help are those who live in very poor communities. Kids who live in poverty often don’t have adequate health care, nutrition, decent housing, and economic security. Why don’t we work together to advocate for better living conditions for these children, their families, and their communities. Standardized test scores are a mirror of family income. Some poor kids beat the odds, but there is a tight correlation between test scores and family income.

When I read Ms Ravitch’s blog post, I immediately thought of the way in which so many of us suffer from mass delusions when it comes to educational stats. Depending on what statistical test you use, test scores over 30 years have either shown no statistically significant change or they have gone up slightly.

In his book Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, Tufts University psychology professor Sam Sommers talks about the median and driving:

Semester after semester, more than eight out of ten of my students report being above-average drivers. In Boston, mind you. In the capital of a state whose residents ranked number 48 out of 50 in an insurance company’s recent “how well do you know the rules of the road” survey. A state with a department of motor vehicles that has deemed necessary the creation of something called “Driver Attitudinal Retraining” courses. A state so renowned for the aggressive driving habits of its residents that its name has inspired a vulgar portmanteau popular on the T-shirts in the rest of New England—that’s Masshole, for those of you sartorially deprived by the options available at your local boutique.

Some drivers in Massachusetts may beat the odds, but there is a tight correlation between living in Massachusetts and being an aggressive driver who doesn’t know the rules of the road. In other words, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, most people keep right on believing the lies. Ms Ravitch seems to hope we can get past that, but I’m not so sure.

Brief explanation of this series of blog posts

This is the first of a series of blog posts that will run several times every week, beginning with the new school year. We’ll find a quote short enough but newsworthy enough to include on these pages and open the gates. I’m pleased to start off this series, entitled by the Topics tag “Constructive Dialog,” with Ms Ravitch’s quote and support for it. I’ve been a financial supporter of Ms Ravitch’s organization, the Network for Public Education, but other than reading her books, I don’t know her. But our goal is the same: to push for equality under the umbrella of educational opportunity for all students. We may have differences of opinion on the best approach to use, but our goal is a common one.

We hope, with this series, to stimulate constructive dialog between students, school officials, and caring members of our larger communities, including parents, business owners, religious organizations, and that whole “village” thing that it takes to raise a child.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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