NBC needs some data education

NBC has had a great idea and decided to put education in the spotlight with its Education Summit this September. However, I have to say NBC needs a little education itself on how to read data.

First off, NBC provides the statistic that U.S. students ranked 21st in the world in math and 25th in science on the international assessment PISA. First, PISA results are not designed to rank countries, as if testing was like a horse race (read more about in the Center’s Guide to international assessments).

Second, PISA is just one international assessment. In TIMSS, which assesses the math and science performance of 4th and 8th graders, U.S. students compare favorably to their peers by scoring significantly (see statistically significant) above the international average in math in both grades. At the 8th grade level, U.S. students scored significantly better than 37 out of the 47 participating countries. Only 5 countries (all Asian countries) scored significantly above U.S. 8th graders. We may not be number one, but we’re doing a lot better internationally than you would think from NBC’s press release.

When using international assessments NBC just didn’t give a full picture of how U.S. students really perform. When using national assessments, NBC just got it plain wrong. NBC claims that NAEP scores show that 68% of eighth graders can’t “read at grade level.” This is not true. Sixty-eight percent of eighth graders scored below Proficient in 2009.

If NBC had read our report The proficiency debate, it would know that NAEP’s “Proficient” level is not synonymous with “on grade level.” Proficient is a higher standard than being on grade level. So saying that two-thirds of eighth graders can’t read at grade level is plain wrong. 

It’s not that all our schools are doing so well that we don’t need to do anything. NAEP’s “Below Basic” level shows that far too many students perform poorly in our schools. But exaggerating the problems and painting all schools with the same brush will do nothing to help the students that need the most help. Across the country, there are countless traditional public schools that are just as or even more successful than highly touted successful charter schools such as KIPP and Harlem’s Children Zone. Although you can read about the traditional public schools’ success stories here, they rarely garner the national media attention successful charter schools receive. If we focus too much on national averages, as NBC has done, we will lose sight of these successful public schools – and their lessons on how to improve other public schools.

So, when evaluating our public schools we have to be careful to get the picture right. We have numerous great public schools that parents, communities, and local businesses know are meeting the needs of their students. We also have too many schools that are struggling to meet tremendous challenges. Instead of painting all schools with the same negative brush, NBC should ask these questions: what are the problems, where are they, and what can we do about them? Basing our decisions about education on a couple of misinterpreted pieces of data will only impair our effective schools while denying ineffective schools the support they need. – Jim Hull

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