Tuesday, December 11, 2012

“White” is to “Black” as “Blanco” is to _________?

NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) has released the results of the assessments of our nation’s children’s vocabulary knowledge and the blaming, speculating, and teeth gnashing may commence. Fortunately, the NAEP experts did not attempt to compare the vocabulary achievement of American pupils with that of school children in Belarus; that sort of meaningless game is the province of PISA and the international assessments. (See my posting on “More Things Wrong with International Assessments Like PISA” from this past June.)

Nonetheless, one step removed from comparing the U.S. with Singapore on reading comprehension is the tendency—allbeit obsession—of the media and general public to compare NAEP results at the state level. (Incidentally, Singapore has the highest percentage of millionaires in its population of any nation in the world; this is worth noting since more TIMSS international comparisons have just been released for science and math. Oh, and Finland fell back to equality with the U.S. OMG! Call back our emissaries to Finland who went looking for the secrets of success!)

Newspapers in Arizona were filled with agonizing reports of the state’s inferiority on the NAEP vocabulary items. The Arizona average for Grade 4 was 211 (on some scale invented by the NAEP technicians that is supposed to track achievement across the life-span) whereas the national average was 217. No one really knows what 217 vs. 211 means in terms of how many questions difference that implies on a 50-question test, or whether the national average 4th grader speaks like an Oscar Wilde while the average Arizona 4th grader mumbles like some nincompoop.

Consider this. About 54% of the nation’s public school students are White and 22% are Hispanic (or Latino, as we use the term in Arizona). But in Arizona, 43% are White and 42% are Latino. It has to occur to anyone with enough brains to read a newspaper article that among those few hundred thousand Arizona Latinos are multitudes of children who are monolingual Spanish, or bilingual Spanish-English, or who live in homes and neighborhoods where mainly Spanish is spoken. Their vocabulary is likely split somewhat between English and Spanish, and an all-English vocabulary test is just another obstacle thrown in their paths and an insult to their intelligence.

What would the nation’s vocabulary score average if the nation had the same demographics as the state of Arizona? That is, what if the nation were 43% White, 6% Black, 42% Latino, 3% Asian-American, and 6% Native American? Well, the answer is a simple weighted average of the national means using the Arizona demographic weights:

.43(228) + .06(200) + .42(200) + .03(230) + .06(203) = 213.4

That’s just 2 points off of the Arizona average vocabulary score. “Within the margin of error,” as they say on the TV newscasts.

So hold your jeremiads, politicians; and cool your sales campaigns, charter school owners. The sky has not fallen; Arizona’s public schools have not checked out. And the media need to exercise just a bit more arithmetic and common sense.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

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