Wednesday, September 28, 2011

NYT: Kinda Wrong

There's a story today in the New York Times that offers the following hed: 

Students’ Knowledge of Civil Rights History Has Deteriorated, Study Finds

Scary stuff.  If it were true.

The study by the Southern Poverty Law Center does not examine student knowledge.  Instead, it scores the states, on an A-to-F scale, on how well they incorporate "a body of knowledge that reflects what civil rights historians and educators consider core information about the civil rights movement."

That's not a measure of what students know.  That's a measure of what states teach.  While they're not mutually exclusive, nor are they the same thing.

And yet here's the NYT lede:

That ignorance by American students of the basic history of the civil rights movement has not changed — in fact, it has worsened, according to a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, on whose board Mr. Bond sits. The report says that states’ academic standards for public schools are one major cause of the problem. 

Unless I'm missing a section of the report, it does not directly address changes in what students know about the civil rights movement.  The NYTimes article does note that scores on general history are pretty dismal in the U.S. and seem to be going down even more than other scores, such as math, but you cannot necessarily argue what we see above, that specific knowledge about civil rights has "deteriorated."

This may seem a petty difference, but I disagree.  A state's stated "core" is often different than what teachers discuss in the classroom, so you have to ask about the validity of the measure here.  But it's completely different to talk about what's in a core curriculum and what students actually know.  Are the two correlated?  No doubt.  Are they conceptually the same thing?  Absolutely not.  And for accuracy's sake, the NYT and SPLC should try harder.  The SPLC got it right in their conclusions, when they wrote: "As this report illustrates, states are failing to set high expectations for student knowledge about the civil rights movement."

For the graphically inclined, below is a map of how well state's did.  My state, Georgia, got a "B," one of the few times we outscored others.  You can also find the map here.




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