Reading on the one hand, writing on the disjointed other

It was reported this week that national high school graduation rates reached an all-time high of 83.2 percent for the 2014-15 school year.  This is good news.  As is the fact that there were improvements among all racial and ethnic groups.  Good news again.

But the Associated Press reported that the “gains come against a backdrop of decreasing scores on national math and reading tests.”  This is not good at all.

It’s also confusing, or at least intriguing news, as one might imagine that if students are doing better when it comes to attainment (graduating high school), they also should be doing better when it comes to achievement (scoring higher on standardized and other tests).  Not necessarily, evidently.

The Star Tribune in carrying the A.P. story added several bullets of Minnesota-pertinent data.  Here are two:

  • As already noted, the four-year graduation rate for the nation was a record 83.2 percent.
  • Minnesota’s graduation rate, a new record for the state, was lower at 81.9 percent.

Intriguing question this time:  At 1.3 percentage points, the difference between how the nation as a whole did in the 2014-15 academic year and how Minnesota did is quite small.  Nevertheless, how did Minnesota students fall below the U.S. mean in regards to graduation rates, when kids here significantly surpass national norms when it comes to tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known colloquially as “The Nation’s Report Card”?

One possible answer is that graduation standards in Minnesota are more demanding than those in most other states.  Which would be good.

On the other hand, a conservative friend has wondered how Minnesota rates can be as (relatively) low as they are given that progressives a few years ago “removed the requirement for any cut-scores on statewide reading and math tests.”  Or, as he has put it, “Just show up, earn your ‘D,’ and you get a diploma.”

Something akin has gone on in Cincinnati.

Public schools in that city enjoyed some happy press several years, as graduation rates for minority students there rose to match those for white students (more or less).  This was described in some quarters as tantamount to erasing achievement gaps (or thereabout).  Let’s just say I had my doubts, which were validated when I looked at the district’s own website for 2010-11.

In a sobering example, 17.9 percent of white students scored in the bottom two categories (of five categories overall) in mathematics, while the figure for African-American boys and girls was more than twice as large, at 43.1 percent.  As for the top two categories, the numbers were 54.8 percent for white kids and 21.4 percent for black kids; again, more than a two-to-one difference, although in the opposite direction.  Ratios for reading and other subject were similar and sometimes worse.

How to explain this inconsistency?  Might it be that getting kids through a final year or two of high school is more doable than having their math and reading skills increase by upwards of three or four grade levels?

Let’s return to Minnesota, sixteen years ago, for my favorite hard-to-reconcile testing results.

In 1999, the Department of Education (then called the Department of Children, Families and Learning) announced that 85 percent of Minnesota tenth graders had passed the state’s basic skills test in writing, which was part of the state’s then-graduation rule.  In some school districts, everyone passed.

On the surface, this suggested a remarkable turnaround insofar as only two years earlier, a full one-third of all (mainly) eighth graders had flunked at least one of two basic skills tests offered that year, in reading and math.  The comparable proportions of children failing in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools had been about two-thirds.

Yet given that it would seem awfully difficult to write competently without first being able to read that way, and given that the reading test used by the state had been more prepubescent than basic, let’s just say my first reaction on hearing about the writing results was that something was amiss.  Something certainly was, as requirements for passing the writing test turned out to be even lower than those for passing the reading one.  How low?

On a scale of one to four, students needed to get a three or four in order to pass the writing test.  To provide guidance, the department posted examples of “essays” written by actual students.  Here is just one of those pieces, an acceptable “three” in the eyes of scorers.  Students had been asked to “Name one goal you would like to accomplish and given specific reasons why.”  Please note that nothing in the several sentences that follow, which represents about two-thirds of an effort, has been changed; misspellings, missing words, and ungrammatical constructions were all in the original.

One goal that I would like to accomplish is, that, I would like to take partnership in owning a comic book store and cafe.  The people I would like to take partnership with are one or two of my friends, who’s name’s are Mike and/or Jim.  I think that this would be a very challenging experience for me.  But, I would also like to take classes on management.  Also, I am good at and enjoy drawing.  So I would like to take classes on improving my drawing skills also.  I think that I would like to own a comic book store is because, I like comic books.

If prologue is past, Minnesota kids presumably did quite nicely on NAEP reading tests around 1999, given they’ve been doing quite nicely recently.  For example, in 2015, average NAEP reading scores for Minnesota eighth graders were lower than in only four other states and jurisdictions.

So on the one hand, around the turn of the millennium, a lot of Minnesota kids did poorly in on a homegrown reading test.  But on a second hand, they were judged as doing swell in writing on another homegrown test.  But on a third hand, it didn’t take very much to do swell on that 1999 writing exam.  But on a fourth hand, Minnesota kids seem to be doing great in reading now, at least when compared to other students across the country.  Which suggests, on a fifth hand, the same probably was true sixteen years ago when a lot of Minnesota students still managed to bomb an easy reading test.

“Go figure,” you may be thinking, but you’d be talking about math tests, where Minnesota kids . . . .

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of Center of the American Experiment.