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Originally published May 8, 2009 at 2:48 PM | Page modified May 8, 2009 at 4:03 PM

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Guest columnist

Education success depends on unspun data

President Obama needs to get the data right if he is going to make a difference in U.S. education. Gerald W. Bracey, a researcher and former state director of assessment, moves beyond hyperbole to deconstruct the numbers about performance of U.S. students.

Special to The Times

HOW can the Obama administration get it right in education when its data are all wrong and its assumptions about its faulty data are flawed?

President Obama recently told the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, "eighth-graders have fallen to ninth place." That statistic comes from the 2008 round of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

It's true. But there were 45 nations in the study so being in ninth place means being ahead of 36 other nations. More important, when TIMSS first began in 1996, American eighth-graders finished 28th among 41 nations. Over 12 years, we have "fallen" up 19 ranks. Many would consider that extraordinary progress.

The president also said, "Only one-third of our 13- and 14-year-olds are reading as well as they should." This is a finding from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP reports results in terms of the percent attaining the basic, proficient and advanced levels.

It is true that only about one-third of American 13- and 14-year-olds reach the proficient level. Is this awful? One study asked, How many students in other countries would reach this level? The answer for Sweden was about one-third. Sweden scored higher than any of the other 35 nations in the study.

Another investigation asked the same question about NAEP math and science in 45 countries. Only five nations would have small majorities of their students scoring at the proficient level in mathematics and only two would clear that barrier in science. "Proficient," as defined by NAEP, is something that very few students in any country can attain.

NAEP data distort our perceptions of achievement. We can see this from a recent study from the U.S. Department of Education wherein 80 percent of high-school seniors who scored at the NAEP basic level in mathematics attended 2- or 4-year institutions of higher education. School critics and the public interpret "basic" as "illiterate" in reading and "can't calculate" in math. Yet 49 percent of the students scoring at the basic level attained a bachelor's degree and another 9 percent received an associate degree.

The NAEP achievement levels do not reflect the true achievement of American students.

According to the president, "Of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in America, half require a bachelor's degree or more."

First off, that means that half do not require even a bachelor's. More important, the fastest-growing occupations never account for many jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the occupations accounting for most jobs are low-paying service-sector jobs. Retail sales alone accounts for more jobs than the top 10 fastest-growing jobs combined. For every systems analyst Microsoft lusts after, Wal-Mart and other retailers put about 15 sales associates on the floor.

Here are the occupations the bureau projected as those with the most jobs from 2006 to 2016: retail sales, cashiers, office clerks, registered nurses, janitors and cleaners, bookkeeping clerks, waiters and waitresses, food preparers and servers, customer-service representatives, and truck and tractor drivers. Shouldn't we focus at least in part on providing these tens of millions with living wages and health benefits?

Turning his attention to standards, the president contended, "Today's system of 50 different bench marks for academic success means fourth-graders in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming and getting the same grade."

The only test that students in Wyoming and Mississippi share in common is NAEP. In 2007, Wyoming's fourth-graders score 225 on NAEP reading and Mississippi fourth-graders 208. That is a big difference on the NAEP scale, but it's 17 points, not 70.

No matter how Wyoming and Mississippi might differ, does the difference come, as the president asserts, from the difference in the two states' educational standards? Perhaps, but I'd put my money more on poverty. Thirty percent of public school children in Wyoming are eligible for free or reduced price lunches. In Mississippi, it's 68 percent.

And, as the president himself observed, "a stubborn gap persists between how well white students are doing compared to their African-American and Latino classmates." Only 1.5 percent of Wyoming's public-school students are African American. In Mississippi, the figure is 50.8 percent.

Everyone agrees that American education can be improved and should be improved, especially in areas of high poverty. But the right policies and right programs cannot issue from bad data and faulty assumptions.

Gerald W. Bracey is a researcher and writer living in Port Townsend. He is the former director of research, evaluation and testing for the Virginia Department of Education. This article is adapted and abridged from a lecture delivered April 14 to the annual convention of the American Educational Research Association.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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